It’s easy to make fun of tourists, but it’s a lot harder to criticize the tourism industry.
Tourists drive at a crawl over the Pali, rubbernecking at whales, while 10 cars tail them. Tourists crowd beaches and trails, then tell you to get out of “their” sunset. Tourists poke you with their selfie sticks as they strike poses for Instagram while crusted in reef-toxic sunblock.
But the tourism industry… well, that employs my aunties, uncles, and cousins. Tourism supports the restaurant I’ll go to for my birthday. Tourism is Maui’s leading economic sector.
It’s a codependent and complicated relationship, and one that was the subject of a Jun. 18 meeting of the County Council’s Environmental, Agricultural, and Cultural Preservation Committee.
Within minutes, the problems of tourism were as apparent as a tourist’s sunburn.
Testimony included familiar complaints: Traffic to Hana and the West Side is congested; visitors trespass into areas they don’t belong; there’s inadequate parking and other public facilities like bathrooms; traffic, trail, and ocean safety are stressed by careless behavior; illegal parking and traffic maneuvers abound resulting in road rage; helicopter noise and unpermitted vacation rentals plague neighborhoods; and overdevelopment spreads along with settlerism and cultural degradation.
“Tourism can initially provide a community with good jobs, a higher standard of living, and a more interesting lifestyle,” testified Dick Mayer, once the vice-chair of the Maui Island General Plan Advisory Committee which laid out boundaries for the visitor numbers back in 2012. “However, as tourism grows, it can begin to threaten the very viability of a community and ultimately it can destroy itself, much like cancer damages the body in which it lives.”
This is what’s happened, he argued, now that Maui has exceeded the Maui Island Plan’s guidance for tourism limits. The plan states that there should be no more than one tourist for every three residents at any given time on the island, in order to “maximize residents’ benefits from the visitor industry.”
Given an island population of about 158,000, that means no more than 52,700 visitors should be on island at any given time. But according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Maui averaged 63,000 tourists a day in April, the latest month on record. On the extreme end, in July 2018, Maui hosted an average of nearly 75,000 tourists a day – almost half of the island’s resident population.
“There are so many tourists now that they outnumber local residents in many areas. And when tourists outnumber locals, they develop their own culture. I’m starting to call it the ‘spring break culture’ or the ‘Disneyland culture,’” said Maui Tomorrow executive director Albert Perez. “In this culture, we [locals and residents] are intruders.”
“Tourism replaced the plantations of old,” said activist Kai Nishiki. “It was supposed to work for us in a balanced way. But the visitor industry has just become our new luna [boss, a term used in plantation days]. We now find ourselves run like an overworked brothel: fetishized, used, abused, and marginalized.”
Solutions suggested by testifiers and resource personnel at the meeting were myriad. They included paid parking for visitors in public places, stricter enforcement of parking rules, usage of items like the “boot” wheel lock for violators, promoting legal tour operators while cracking down on scofflaws, placing limits on traffic for congested roads like Hana Highway, capping numbers of visitors in towns, limiting rental cars, limiting future incoming flights, increasing security guard presence along Hana Highway, halting construction of hotels and resort expansions, new traffic rules, and… messaging.
“I think a lot of things can be helped with messaging,” said Office of the Mayor liaison Terryl Vencl, who spent 26 years in the visitors industry before moving to government.
“We are talking about close to 3 million people coming to Maui… How do you message something to people so that they don’t come in such big numbers?” asked Councilmember Alice Lee. “It’s kind of an unwelcoming message, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know that I would message ‘don’t come,’” Vencl responded.
After the meeting I asked Mayer if this “messaging” solution really gets at the root of the overtourism problem.
“No,” he replied.
“I don’t think the industry has really come to grips with the fact that we have overtourism on the island. Part of the problem is the decisions are being made in New York City and finance desks in Chicago, wherever they might be,” Mayer explained, referencing the outside corporations that own hotels and other visitor industry businesses on island. “They’re sucking up $10s of millions, which should be going to the workers on the island so you can afford to live here. I don’t think that we really have the decisions being made here locally.”
Councilmember Tasha Kama agreed that locals should have a greater say on this issue. “I’m thinking that we have to have a deeper conversation about this stuff,” she said. “It’s not stuff that you do in an afternoon in council. It’s something that you need to have with people in distinct communities to get to the heart, the core, of what’s hurting them. And then we can talk about educating the tourists. Because no matter how much education you give our tourists, if the people are still hurting you’re not addressing the situation.”
“I don’t have answers for everything today,” Vencl responded to her.
If one thing is clear, however, it’s that the leadership of the community has changed and new leaders are stepping up. The agenda item is just one example: Last year, the subject stalled under former Councilmember Elle Cochran’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee.
“We just wanted to continue the work and we realized that people had put energy into these resolutions that last council didn’t get agendized,” EACP Chair Councilmember Shane Sinenci told me after the meeting.
Sinenci’s next action will be to explore laws that make it illegal to hold up traffic if there are at least five cars behind you, he said, adding that the law could be modeled after a similar implementation in Washington State. Sinenci said he would also like to advance a “tourism sustainability board” to address “environmental and cultural sites as a governing board for tourism,” as well as discuss a resolution first proposed by Cochran in 2018 that would require the Maui County Visitor Association to incorporate “specific environmental action steps” into grant objectives.
As for the day’s accomplishments, Sinenci felt there were “a lot of good solutions.”
“When people come out and testify like this, then we see [how] each community has similar and unique issues,” he said. “The meeting did bring out testifiers from each of the districts that spoke to their district and we also got a general feeling about the entire County. We deferred the item so we can definitely work on this in the future. We want to get everybody’s input before we bring up a resolution.”
And, indeed, the chances for change look better this year than they did in 2018.
In the words of one testifier, “I was moved to come down here today because there is a whole generation that is speaking out and they’re tired of being overrun… It’s a new council and it isn’t just us old people anymore testifying. The young people are aware of what’s going on and they want to keep what’s Maui, Maui.”
Photo by Larry Stevens