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Putting brakes on overtourism

Maui County Council members heard testimony this week on a pair of measures that could dramatically change the beachgoing experience for residents and visitors alike.

A bill introduced by Maui County Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez calls for reserving half of all public beach access parking spaces for local residents. She also proposed charging nonresidents for parking at our beach parks.

We imagine public reactions ranged from fears of killing the golden goose to, “It’s about time!”

Maui is not alone in holding these sorts of debates. From Kaanapali to Venice, the pandemic has provided residents of tourist meccas around the world a clearer perspective on just how much impact the industry has on resources and everyday lives. There is no denying tourism is a powerful economic driver, but it comes with trade-offs. There are questions of what percentage of the profits trickle down to those most affected.

Last summer we met Keanae mom, Ciera Rodrigues, who said the closure of Hana Highway to nonresident traffic had been “magical.” Without the steady stream of rental cars the peninsula was quiet. Her kids could safely play on their narrow neighborhood lane.

“Before, I used to have to worry about them playing near the road or even riding a bike,” Rodrigues said. “There were hundreds and hundreds of tourists passing by, and now there’s barely anybody passing.”

On the opposite side of the coin, the pandemic has also clearly shown what happens to island jobs, farms and businesses when people stop coming here. Like it or not, tourism is what puts food on local workers’ tables and fuels our state government’s tax base.

We see a real danger in creating an us-versus-them attitude where visitors are portrayed as greedy interlopers. The last thing this island needs is folks brawling over parking spots or taking the law into their own hands. There must be more to the plan than posting “residents only” signs.

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee hit the nail on the head when she said there should be input from the people who would be charged with implementing and enforcing such policies. If Maui County decides to follow this course, we have one chance to do it right from the start. It’s also not much of a leap to envision “yes” votes spawning calls for further regulations on things like, say, the number of rental cars on the island.

Most visitors are accustomed to paying to park at their home beaches and parks. That won’t be a hard sell. If handled improperly, “residents only,” seems to offer more room for bad outcomes. Those could range from ill will to physical confrontations.

The council’s Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee is expected to revisit these issues in July. We look forward to what folks on all sides of the issue have to say, as well as a concrete plan on exactly how the measures would be implemented and enforced.

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