A dire rental car shortage is forcing some would-be Hawaii visitors to cancel their trips — or empty their wallets.

The root of the problem is two-fold. When the pandemic hit and Hawaii imposed the nation’s strictest travel rules, car rental companies like Hertz and Budget started to sell off portions of their fleet and ship some of their inventory to the U.S. mainland, where they could still make money.

Now that Hawaii’s travel restrictions have eased and tourism is returning in full force, a national shortage of semi-conductor computer chips is making it difficult for car manufacturers to put new cars on the market. In turn, rental car companies are struggling to increase their fleets.

The rental car shortage has prompted safety concerns as some visitors have taken to walking and bicycling on busy highways without sidewalks or shoulders. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

For those lucky enough to land in Hawaii with a rental car reservation, daily rates are sky high — in some cases up to $700. Some rental car companies in the islands have run out of vehicles even for those who have an advanced reservation. 

The Office of Consumer Protection is looking into the possibility of price gouging related to the sharp spike in car rental rates, but it has not yet reached a conclusion. 

Even with the supply shock, Office of Consumer Protection Executive Director Stephen Levins said rental car companies are not necessarily justified in raising rental car prices above what is typically considered reasonable.

The debacle is also hurting residents, not just tourists. 

Jenni Cooney, a pharmaceutical rep in Honolulu, said there were no rental cars available last month when she traveled to Maui for a half-day to meet with a client. Instead, she waited 90 minutes for an Uber.

“I was at the curb with a big group of tourists and everybody was just constantly refreshing and refreshing and refreshing the Uber app trying to get a ride,” she said. “When one person would finally get a ride, the rest of us would cheer for them.”

Standing in the humid air, Cooney said she remembers thinking, “Didn’t the airlines and the hotels get the memo? They’re bringing in planes full of tourists and so many of them don’t have any way of getting to where they need to go. It’s not like we didn’t have time to plan for this.”

The problem is especially bad on neighbor islands, where public bus systems and ride sharing services like Uber are sparse if existent at all.

We welcome them back, but do they need a vehicle to go everywhere? Many times, maybe not.” — Maui Mayor Mike Victorino

At Lihue Airport on Thursday, several stranded travelers descended on local residents with vehicles, offering to fork over all the cash in their wallet for a lift to their hotel.

As a last resort, some visitors are driving around in U-Haul trucks or hitchhiking

Kauai Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sue Kanoho said the Garden Isle’s rental car fleet is down by at least 40% from its typical, pre-pandemic inventory level.  

With the island’s Avis Car Rental service temporarily shuttered, Kauai’s remaining rental car companies are sold out of vehicles through early August. 

And, according to Kanoho, the car rental companies on the island have no significant plans to bring in more vehicles.

“It’s an unexpected consequence of the pandemic that we didn’t see coming, and it’s not just Kauai or Hawaii — it’s Arizona, Florida, all of these visitor destinations are in the same boat that we are in,” Kanoho said. “And, look, it’s serious. This is going to affect all of us in one way or another.”

On Kauai, there are no easy solutions.

The island’s public bus system is designed for residents and does not allow passengers with large luggage to ride. 

Some resorts offer their guests an airport shuttle service, something Kanoho said more hotels will need to do.

Hortencia Narayan, left, and Dolores Zambrano, both of the Bay Area, arrived at Lihue Airport on Thursday with no prospects for a rental car to get around the island. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

Kanoho said she is encouraging more residents to cash in on the opportunity to help out stranded visitors by becoming an Uber driver or renting their personal vehicle out to visitors via the car-sharing app Turo. 

But she noted that supply-and-demand has pushed the going rate for a car on the app to several hundred dollars a day — too much for some visitors to afford.

At Lihue Airport on Thursday, Sarven Gobel, 27, of Los Angeles, said he was thrilled to book a last-minute vehicle rental on Turo for $180 per day — a rate that he described as a steal.

Nearby, Dolores Zambrano of the Bay Area said she had been sitting on a bench outside the transpacific terminal for more than an hour trying to find a means of transportation to her hotel — and still hadn’t figured it out.

“It’s like a five-hour flight so it’s just a lot of travel to come and stay at a resort with no way to get a car,” Zambrano said. “We’re really into the local stuff and we wouldn’t normally be interested in staying at a resort but we’re just thinking that once we find a way to get there we’re not going to be able to leave and get around.”

Without a car, she said she won’t be able to visit any of the botanical gardens and other sites that she had built her vacation around.

The problem, Kanoho said, is presenting an opportunity for tourism industry leaders to work toward implementing some of the visitor management strategies that have long been talked about: satellite car rental locations, a bicycle-sharing system. 

She cautioned that hotels and activity operators should be proactive in figuring out how to help their guests find transportation.

Sarven Govel, 27, of Los Angeles said the $180 car rental rate he scored last-minute on Turo is a steal compared to the going price to rent a vehicle on Kauai. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

“This is a serious situation and don’t wait for government to fix it for you,” said Kanoho, who said she briefed Mayor Derek Kawakami’s staff about the issue. “You need to make sure all your reservations understand that, if you want the vacation you think you want, make sure you have access to a vehicle for the times that you need it.”

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino said he would like the rental car inventory on the Valley Isle to remain limited to help manage traffic congestion. 

Instead of putting more cars on the road to meet the visitor demand, the mayor said he’d like to see a proliferation of bus and shuttle services that can transport hotel guests to popular destinations for a fee.

“I know many residents, including myself, used to love to go to Lahaina and it would take 20 or 25 minutes. Now it takes 40 or 45 minutes,” Victorino told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” online interview show on Wednesday. “We see the change. We welcome them back, but do they need a vehicle to go everywhere? Many times, maybe not.” 

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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