In 2019, over 3 million visitors came to Maui County. Last year the COVID-19 pandemic struck and tourist arrivals fell below 800,000. Declining tourism has starved our economy, but we have managed to survive. An unexpected giveaway from the pandemic was a much needed break from tourism.
Now Maui County has an unprecedented opportunity to reset tourism in a way that benefits our people and the environment. Most of us agree that County Maui can have tourism, but tourism cannot have County Maui. This is our home, not a theme park. We are joining with many other destinations in seeking a smoother, smoother and more balanced hospitality industry.
Venice, Italy is one of the most visited destinations in the world. Before the pandemic, this historic city received around 25 million visitors per year. To provide context, Venice measures approximately 160 square miles compared to the 727 square miles of the island of Maui.
As tourism grew unchecked, Venetians found themselves out of their own hometowns as passing vacation rentals killed residential accommodation like cancer. So it’s no surprise that in 2016, residents revolted by posting anti-Airbnb leaflets in their city urging tourists to boycott TVR. Dublin, Barcelona and the Greek island of Santorini have since joined the anti-vacation rental movement that is gathering momentum around the world.
Like Maui, Venice took a break from tourism during the pandemic. This convinced locals not to allow tourism to return in the same way. Venice officials are now rethinking their entire tourism management system. Part of their plan, according to Paola Mar, city councilor for tourism, is to encourage residents to return to live in the city permanently.
The mayor of Venice is in talks to convert vacation rentals into accommodation for students and university workers, and historic buildings are now being restored to residential accommodation. Efforts to limit the number of tourists – including a hefty new tax on day visitors – are expected to begin this summer.
Earlier this month, hundreds of Venetians took to the streets to protest the arrival of the first cruise ship since the pandemic closed the city’s port. A counter-demonstration was organized by thousands of workers who depend on tourism for their livelihood and who have been unemployed since the start of the pandemic last spring.
Closer to home, when Maui tourism returned, our beloved route to Hana was overrun with tourists stopping and parking wherever they could find. Heeding the irresponsible advice of guides, they regularly encroach on private property; take selfies at every waterfall, pond or natural feature; and interfere with residents and others along the way. Recently, the state Department of Transportation installed several signs warning of higher fines for illegal stopping on the Hana Highway.
I spoke with MPD about strengthening law enforcement and as of June 1, officers had issued 387 parking tickets along the Hana Highway. At the same time, the MPD needs at least 90 new recruits to fill a shortage of long-serving officers. A choice must be made between the repression of serious infringements or the marking of illegally parked rental cars.
I also spoke with the governor about restricting access, but because Hana Highway was built with federal funds, that is not an option. And while I would love to tow every illegally parked vehicle, the safety concerns of groups of people without transportation in areas of irregular cell phone service need to be considered.
I am considering supplementing law enforcement officers with a new category of parking enforcement officers or deploying county rangers to issue parking infractions. However, such changes would require an agreement with the United State of Hawaii Police and / or United Public Workers Organization and a new budget allocation, so it won’t happen overnight. I also speak to state lawmakers to determine what help the state of Hawaii can provide.
The community’s desire for immediate change requires a quick response if possible while considering all options. Diversifying our economy to reduce Maui County’s over-reliance on tourism will take time. Building a sustainable and diverse economy will take determination and patience. Fortunately, the pandemic has taught us that Maui County can do anything with determination and unity.
* “Our County” a column by Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino discusses county issues and county government activities.