Amid a post-pandemic tourism surge, Hawaii’s counties are rethinking their reliance on the visitor industry with new laws meant to stem the flood of visitors.

Kauai is considering a new visitor parking fee at overcrowded beaches. The Hawaii County Council recently weighed the pros and cons of defunding Big Island tourism promotion since, regardless of marketing efforts, visitors seem to keep coming anyway.

Last week the Maui County Council introduced its toughest measure yet when it adopted a ban on new hotels in south and west Maui. No building permits will be given out for visitor accommodations in these areas, which includes Lahaina and Kihei, for up to two years. 

Short of shuttering existing hotels, the ordered halt on new hotel construction is arguably the most substantial move the county could make considering it has no control over the number of rental cars on the roads or the number of airplanes flying in.

As the pandemic eases and tourism ramps up again, residents of Hana, Maui are asking their elected officials to find more ways to balance the region’s value as a tourist destination with sustainability. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

The changes come at a time when the Hawaii Tourism Authority, facing a shrinking budget, is shifting to take on a bigger role in managing tourism instead of mainly focusing on marketing Hawaii to the world.

State lawmakers this week underscored their dissatisfaction with the agency’s efforts so far at tourism management by overriding Gov. David Ige’s veto of House Bill 862, which slashes the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s annual budget to $60 million from $79 million.

HTA President and CEO John De Fries said in a prepared statement that the agency going forward will collaborate at the federal, state and county levels more than ever before to alleviate concerns.

He pointed to the new Maui ALOHA Shuttle pilot program that launched July 3 to help reduce airport chaos amid a rental car shortage as an example of a creative solution generated in partnership between HTA and Maui County.

But some county officials raised questions about whether more promised collaborative efforts can come fast enough as the state seems to be losing its window to implement any real change to the industry post-pandemic.

“It’s like if you’re stuck under a woodpile, which is kind of what tourism is, and it just keeps piling on while you’re trying to figure out how to get out from under it,” said Maui County Councilwoman Kelly Takaya King, who championed Maui’s hotel moratorium. “You wouldn’t keep piling on more and more wood while you’re trying to figure out how to stop the wood, right?”

Long-Simmering Frustrations

With overseas travel still restricted, Hawaii’s desirability as a post-pandemic getaway for mainland tourists is soaring. But with restaurants and tours still operating at limited capacity and dire labor and rental car shortages, tourists are flooding an island chain that’s perhaps less equipped than ever to cater to them.

Popular opinion is that something has to give to rein in the visitor industry’s intrusion on the daily lives of residents fed up with traffic jams, overcrowded beaches and illegal parking.

Maui has become so inundated with tourists in recent months that the island’s mayor asked airlines to cut back on flights. But the counties have no control over the number of flights coming to the islands. So while King said she appreciates the mayor’s efforts to ask the airlines to cut back, she said it’s really just semantics. 

Passengers line up outside the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport Interisland terminal waiting to be screened at the TSA checkpoint. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The council is going to take action where we can, and talking to the state or talking to the airlines is not action,” King said. “It’s a request for someone else to take action. And we appreciate that the mayor is trying to do that, but the people are demanding action.”

What is Fault Lines?
“Fault Lines” is a special project that continues to explore disruption and discord in Hawaii, especially as we emerge from a pandemic that exposed new points of contention, and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. Read more here.

Although the state’s tourism authority is renewing its efforts to partner with the counties — since May, for example, the HTA has convened multi-agency meetings to discuss collaborative efforts to mitigate overtourism on the Hana Highway — the counties aren’t waiting around to see if these efforts will actually be successful.

King said she’s working to find out whether it would be a good idea for the county to further crack down on illegal vacation rentals by charging a fine to tourists who stay in unpermitted accommodations instead of only holding owners of illegal rentals accountable.

“This has always been a normal pattern of behavior for the counties whenever they feel issues are not being adequately addressed at the state level, they address them themselves,” said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association and a seasoned politician. 

“This occurred during the pandemic a lot and it’s going to continue,” he said. “As much as we try to group them together as one, the counties see themselves as very different.”

How Counties Are Tackling It

How many tourists is too many? Maui County’s strategic plan for the tourism industry defines it like this: the number of visitors on Maui at any given time should not exceed a third of the resident population. 

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino speaks to joint WAM Finance committees at the 2020 Legislature
Maui Mayor Mike Victorino asked airlines to “pause” flights to Kahului Airport amid a surge in post-pandemic travel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That means that Maui, which has a population of 157,000, shouldn’t have more than about 52,000 visitors at a time, or one tourist for every three residents.

In 2019, the average number of visitors was equivalent to 43% of Maui’s population, or about 67,500 people, according to Dick Mayer, a retired UH Maui College professor who served as vice chairman of the committee that advised Maui County on setting the 33% threshold for Maui island visitors.

King said residents are no longer willing to put up with a level of tourism that violates the county’s destination management plan.

“People even before the pandemic were getting fed up with tourists and now everybody is exasperated,” King said. “It just came back too fast and too furious. So the momentum and the political will is there.”

In contrast to what’s happening on Maui, Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said his goal is not to slash the number of visitors to the Garden Isle but to manage them better once they arrive.

The county is working with the private sector to stand up alternative modes of transportation, such as shuttle systems, to help tourists navigate the island while reducing their dependency on daily car rentals that clog the roads. The county is also considering reengineering some beach parking lots to include a visitor shuttle drop-off lane.

And the mayor said he’s considering ordering periodic shutdowns of county campgrounds to give the natural resources a break — an idea inspired by the pandemic-related shutdowns, which had positive environmental impacts on popular beach parks.

“I’m not sure that me saying that I want to reduce the number of visitors is honest because I would be telling people something that sounds great but is very difficult to achieve,” Kawakami said. “But I do think we can address how these visitors are visiting our island — and it all boils down to the amount of vehicles that are on our roads and taking up parking spaces.”

On Kauai, 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

A group formed in 2020 to identify Kauai’s strengths and weaknesses as a visitor destination cited poor leadership at the state and federal levels as the island’s top threat, especially if communications between agencies don’t improve.

Of particular concern to the group was overuse leading to poor conditions at state-managed beach parks.

When the state pulled back funding for lifeguards at several beach parks in April, including Kee Beach at Haena State Park on Kauai, Kawakami said the county stepped in to fill the budget hole.

“I decided that you cannot compromise lives and so I paid out of our county pocket for lifeguards for the state,” he said.

“It’s like when we have a visitor that needs to get rescued on a state trail — we don’t blink,” Kawakami said. “We send our county helicopter and our county firefighter to go rescue that visitor. And I think the biggest thing I would ask the state is to just treat me as a partner in that same way.”

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

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