It’s said that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. So it goes for Maui’s Island Plan, a long-range planning document adopted in 2012 to guide the county’s decisions until 2030. It contains this bit of policy direction: “Promote a desirable island population by striving to not exceed an island-wide visitor population of roughly 33 percent of the resident population.” A quick look at the county’s census and visitor industry data shows that this plan has gone terrifically askew.
In 2018, the U.S. Census estimated the resident population of Maui County at 167,207. One-third of that is 55,736 – that’s the number of visitors on island at any given time that the Maui Island Plan states we should not exceed in order to “Maximize residents’ benefits from the visitor industry.” Yet, data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority shows that Maui’s average daily visitor census for every month this year so far has exceeded this guidance by more than 10,000 visitors. Only two months in 2018 fell below the limit suggested by the Island Plan, with tourism peaking at 74,929 visitors on island per day in July.
So why does the county continue to invest millions of dollars a year into the Maui County Visitors Association, an organization with the mission of marketing Maui to prospective tourists across the globe?
That’s the $4-million question that was taken up at an April 24 meeting of Maui County Council’s Economic Development and Budget Committee.
In the end, the committee voted to cut the appropriation for the Maui County Visitors Association to $3 million, a reduction from the $4 million proposed by Mayor Michael Victorino and the $4 million allotted in the previous budget. The reduction in funds was advanced by Councilmembers Tamara Paltin, Shane Sinenci, Kelly King, and Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who all initially supported a motion to strip the Association’s funding by half, to $2 million.
The motion was introduced by Paltin, who said the funds should be moved to investments in “the areas that will promote Maui, such as ocean safety, environmental sustainability, and beautification.” These would promote the “authentic things” that Maui has to offer and ensure the safety of both tourists and residents, she added.
Sinenci agreed with the need to move toward “more management and education,” citing traffic and safety issues that have impacted East Maui.
“I just don’t want it to be where our quality of life is interrupted, where we become second class citizens to our industry,” he said. “I don’t want it to be where we – as people have said – kill our golden goose. I want to see a balance of our natural resources, our environment; that we take care of this living place we all reside on… where we can help the economy but also maintain who we are.”
To Councilmembers Alice Lee, Yuki Lei Sugimura, and Mike Molina, however, the $2-million dollar cut was too much, too fast.
“Whether we like it or not, there is this over-reliance on the visitors industry, and this is the main industry that we have,” said Lee. “Any major event could really have a negative impact on the visitors coming to Maui and that would really affect our economy and the jobs of the many people who work in the visitor industry. So I would be very, very reluctant to delete $2 million.”
“That is absolutely correct,” agreed Sugimura. “We may not like the idea that we have to spend our dollars on advertising, but – some of you in business will understand this – you need to keep top-of-mind and keep working at [marketing].” The Maui County Visitors Association exists to bring people here, she argued, not to educate visitors and manage tourism – that falls under other budget line items the County.
Sugimura acknowledged that residents can sometimes feel like tourism is “too much,” but she defended the industry as a “very important part of our economy.”
Likewise, Molina recognized “the frustration of some of my colleagues with how our visitor success has gone, because with success sometimes comes inconvenience and uninetended consequences.” But, in opposition to the $2-million cut, he conceded, “This is all we got.”
Faced with this tension between quality of life and the island’s economic dependence on an industry that in many ways erodes that quality of life, Councilmember Tasha Kama sided with concerns that cuts to the visitors bureau could impact the livelihoods of workers who depend on the visitor industry’s success to survive.
“It just pains me that we are so dependent upon this industry that we havent figured out how to be more self-sufficient,” she said, adding that she would like to see a better solution than simply cutting the funding half.
The hotels “still have to accomodate the tourists, they still are going to fill the rooms, they still are going to make money,” Councilmember King responded, skeptical of the notion that a cut to the Visitors Association would result in a loss of jobs. “I think the visitors bureau helps, but I also look at the other islands: O‘ahu gets nothing from its council to its visitors bureau; the other two islands, which get under $300,000 for one and under $400,000 for the other, still have pretty significant visitor numbers for the size of their islands.”
“I support the visitor industry as one of our industries,” King said, “but we are always going to be dependent on it if we always put all our money into it, if we don’t start putting our money into other things.”
“By our budget we determine the policy of where we’re going,” she concluded. “Are we gonna go into a diversified economy? Are we gonna create family wage-earning jobs for our people by investing in these other industries and growing them so that we aren’t so dependent on tourism, so that we can be the captains of our own destiny?”
Before taking the vote on the $2-million reduction, Councilmember Rawlins-Fernandez emphasized that the budget was just for one year, and significant impacts could be mitigated with follow-up legislation. She also said that the hotel industry is already doing extensive advertising, and warned against duplication of services.
“I think we need less promotion, especially promotion that is funded by taxpayer dollars,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “Right now we’re looking at investing so much money – millions of dollars – into the impacts [of tourism]. It’s so strange that we continue to invest in what’s causing a lot of these impacts, that we’re then investing money to address. It’s just pretty maddening.”
The vote to cut the Maui County Visitors Association budget in half failed, 4-5. A compromise to fund the Association at $3 million dollars passed, 7-2, with Councilmembers Sinenci and Riki Hokama as the “no” votes.
Diversifying the Economy
I caught up with Councilmembers Paltin and King to hear more about their stances on our island’s dependence on visitors, and the potential to diversify Maui’s economy.
“I am not against the tourism industry, I am against the tourism industry not promoting authentic Hawai‘i and Maui, and not seriously educating our visitors about the dangers of certain activities as well as the challenges we as a county face when we only get a small portion of transient accomodation taxes returned to our county,” Paltin told me. “I am against continuing to invest millions of dollars on the diminishing returns we are seeing in the industry.”
“I am not thinking of replacing the visitor industry,” she said. “I would prefer to maintain at current levels but spread the [visitor] numbers more throughout the year… I would love to see us be leaders in education, especially in fields that naturally fit, like marine biology, sea level rise, coastal erosion, volcanology, and existing astronomy to the extent where we control that industry and it does not control us…”
Paltin added that there are many other industries on the island that could offer employment for residents as well as economic stimulation, such as engineering, public safety, education, medicine, and entrepreneurship.
“One is agriculture,” King told me. “We’ve never put enough into agriculture to really drive that industry.” Yet, she has been encouraged by “what the Hawaii Farmers Union has been doing with the Farm Apprenticeship Mentoring program, which is mentoring new farmers. Growing farmers is the first step. And then putting more money in county programs like the FAM program, like the [University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources] program, like the Farm Bureau as well. And then we’ve got some of these smaller programs cropping up, like the Grow Some Good effort and school garden networks.
“So we’ve got a fledgling industry. But if we don’t fund it, it will always be fledgling.”
King added that green jobs could be another major industry in Hawai‘i, and that she is supportive of local entrepreneurship. “In Maui, we’ve got so many creative minds here and so much innovation, we really need to put more money into helping small business and helping create entrepreneurs on the island,” she said.
In closing our conversation, King reflected on the budget process as a whole and looked forward to the next year. “It was much more collaborative this year than the last two years. Every councilmember got to discuss their preferences and their priorities. What we need to do now in this next year, is do the hard work before we get to budget and make sure we’re on the right track – make sure we know which parts of the budget we want to grow, what’s working and what’s not working as we see the money get expended, and then figure out where we go from here.”
In other words, by then we’ll know whether the new council’s budget is the right remedy for the island’s tarnished golden goose.
Visit Mauicounty.us for council updates, meeting times, and agendas.
Image courtesy Flickr/Niall Kennedy