From capping the number of hotels to requiring tourists to make reservations for popular spots like hiking trails and waterfalls, a group of Maui County leaders tasked with finding new ways to control over-tourism has released its list of ideas.

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Over the last six months, a small group of Maui County Council members — officially known as the “tourism management and economic development temporary investigative group” — spent hours meeting and interviewing business, government and community leaders to come up with new ways to rein in what many Maui residents believe is an unmanageable number of tourists.

Before the pandemic struck, Maui saw more than 3 million visitor arrivals in 2019, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data. Those numbers plummeted to 793,000 in 2020, but rose back up to nearly 2.3 million last year.

“When the pandemic first started, everything shut down, and everyone had that brief opportunity to see what it looked like without the hordes of people — then realize what it was that we’ve sacrificed for tourism,” said council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who led the four-person group that also included council members Alice Lee, Tamara Paltin and Shane Sinenci.

“It’s not just tourism; it’s very extractive, exploitative over-tourism,” she continued. “We let it get out of control.”

In its 418-page report released this week, the group outlined a dozen changes that the county could make in hopes of preventing tourism from hurting longtime residents’ quality of life. The document’s release is the latest development in a community-wide reckoning over Maui’s relationship — and reliance — on tourism, which was brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. 

A group of Maui County leaders, which spent six months investigating ways to control over-tourism, released its 418-page report Wednesday with a dozen suggestions. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

Last month, the council voted to enact a law that pauses the construction of new hotels and visitor lodgings for two years, or until the county sets a cap on such places — whichever comes first. The council overrode Mayor Mike Victorino’s veto of the bill, who said at the time that, “if we don’t provide the right type of visitor accommodations in the right places, we could see an influx of vacation rentals in our residential neighborhoods.”

Supporters, however, say the pause gives government leaders time to come up with a plan to manage tourism, diversify the economy and tackle affordability issues in a community where the median single-family home price just soared to a record $1.16 million — well out of many Maui families’ financial reach. 

The report is the first step in what will be a long vetting process that could unfold over the next year before any of the recommendations can become law. Here are some of the ideas outlined in the report.

Cap the number of new hotels, vacation rentals and other visitor lodging 

At any given time on Maui, there might be up to 70,000 tourists — almost one visitor for every two residents, according to the county. And that’s more than the island of about 150,000 people should have, per an existing county plan that says the number of visitors shouldn’t exceed more than one-third of Maui’s population. 

But Maui is already well past that limit, so the group of council members is proposing that the county limit the number of hotels, vacation rentals and other types of “transient accommodations” to what the island already has. If the council agrees on a cap, it could trigger the end of the existing moratorium on construction. 

In the future, if existing hotels or condominiums are threatened by sea level rise, the group is also proposing that they be allowed to move and rebuild in areas that are safer. 

Create a commission to manage tourism and hire a “Chief of Tourism Management”

Right now, the Maui County government doesn’t have a group of officials or a department actively working to manage tourism and its impacts on residents and the environment, according to the report.

The report proposes creating a tourism management commission made up mostly of community members who don’t directly rely on the tourism industry for their income. At least one of the members, the report said, should work in tourism to provide the other members insight. That commission would also be tasked with selecting a new “Chief of Tourism Management.”

It’s unclear if the council could create a new commission without changing the Maui County Charter, which outlines how the county government is set up and operates. A group of community members is in the process of reviewing and suggesting changes to the charter

Push hotels and other visitor lodgings to go green

With government leaders bracing for the climate crisis’ impacts on Maui, the report recommended pushing the tourism industry to become more sustainable. That could mean encouraging hotels to use native plants in landscaping, conserve resources like water and electricity and work to educate visitors on how to respect Maui’s culturally and environmentally sensitive places. 

Measure residents’ quality of life

As many Maui residents hunkered down to stop the spread of Covid-19 and avoided their own loved ones, visitors began once again flocking to the island when quarantine restrictions eased. By the peak holiday season this winter, as omicron surged, resort hotspots like Keawakapu were so packed with tourists that they looked like pre-pandemic Waikiki. 

And, while many Maui residents struggled to stay employed in an economy dependent on tourism, a flood of out-of-state homebuyers drove property prices to record highs. For many of the island’s longtime families, it’s become even harder to make ends meet.

One of the group’s recommendations is to better measure residents’ quality of life and track how things do or don’t improve as part of the Maui Island Plan, which is the document that spells out how the community should grow and change. Some of the new measures could include residents’ commute times to work, the portion of visitors on island each day and residents’ access to popular spots like beaches and waterfalls.

Reservation system for tourism hotspots 

Over the last decade, some of Maui’s most loved natural resources, including beaches, hiking trails and waterfalls like Twin Falls, have become so overwhelmed with visitors that it’s become difficult for residents to enjoy them — let alone find parking. To protect those areas, the group recommends creating a reservation system for visitors. Maui’s national park already has a similar reservation system.

Hire someone to help Maui County work with the Federal Aviation Administration 

The county doesn’t have control over how many seats are filled on airplanes or the path that planes fly during takeoff and landing to the Kahului Airport. And in recent years, the flight path changed to send commercial planes booming over Haiku, according to the report. 

One of the group’s recommendations is to hire a firm to work with the federal government on aviation issues that would typically be out of the county’s control. It also wants to push commercial airlines to show educational videos on flights. 

These are just some of the group’s recommendations set to be discussed at a council committee meeting on Feb. 23, once other council members have had a chance to digest the 400-page report. Maui residents will have the chance to share their thoughts about the recommendations at that meeting. 

Many of the recommendations will also need to be vetted by Maui’s Planning Commission in a process that could take several months.

“Nothing will happen overnight,” said Lee, the council chair. “The legislative process is slow, for good reason.”

Read the full report below.

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

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