We are standing at a crossroad. Behind us, a county overrun by tourists, heavily congested roads and beaches, over-taxed resources, and sewage and sunscreen destroying our reefs. Ahead, there are two paths to choose from. One that continues from the path behind us, riddled with unfettered tourism; and the other, the gift of a fresh start, a cleared path calling us home to the Maui County we’ve longed for. The coronavirus lifted a veil revealing what cannot be unseen: hills of parked rental cars, wide-open roads, uncrowded beaches, and nature in its natural condition.
In the last few years, we have experienced record-breaking tourist numbers with no plateau in sight. Before now, the cost of industry externalities was difficult to quantify. We never knew what 22,000 rental cars looked like in one place, because they’ve always been dispersed across our roads, or what having a break from processing millions of gallons of extra sewage, trash, and food waste meant. Until now, we have been at the mercy of the tourism industry’s tightly woven narrative that, “We cannot survive without them, and their impact on our residents’ quality of life is worth it.”
I believe the narrative we’ve been force-fed for decades is not accurate. Even without the 30,000 tourists that arrived at the same time last year, the County Council was able to balance the budget, taking care of our residents’ immediate needs, investing in food security and more stable industries, and ensuring the health and safety of our community through core services.
No one is saying we should completely do away with tourism; it will always be part of our economy. However, we must flatten the curve of tourism and control its spread to prevent it from attaining its unsustainable pre-pandemic levels.
For years, the Maui Visitors Bureau (“MVB”) received 4 million from the County and over $7 million from the State’s Hawaii Tourism Authority. Starting in 2018, the Council began asking MVB to manage and educate tourists. Now we know that request was misguided, since these are two diametrically opposing missions. The entity that is working to attract as many tourists as possible cannot also be the entity that limits that number.
Recently, a video, “How the Coronavirus Will Force Destinations to Stop Overtourism,” by Doug Langsky affirmed our concerns and provided ideas for solutions. All over the world, popular destinations have begged their governments to establish policies that will protect both quality of life for residents and the tourism industry itself. Some governments have responded and developed brilliant systems that we can use as models.
Mr. Langsky’s presentations help us visualize what a shift could look like, starting with protecting quality of life for locals. The Maui Island Plan was a good start establishing a 3:1 resident to tourist ratio countywide. However, this ratio has been disregarded since 2016 and tourists don’t regulate themselves; therefore I suggest each area should set their own limit. A good example being Haleakalā for sunrise, and now Hana.
Since the shutdown, a permit is required to enter Hana. I propose that this permitting process be continued, and duplicated for other rural areas. This will help mitigate the overtourism problems we have experienced: hundreds of rental cars parking illegally to snap pictures with no regard for safety each day, bumper-to bumper traffic, thousands of tourists trespassing on private property, with some requiring tax-payer funded helicopters to save them. A tourism management organization can assist us to maintain this kind of balance, using timed ticket entry and other tools. We now know how to do it, and we must not go backwards.
I’m excited to announce I’ve already started working with community leaders to create a Tourism Management Organization, and I look forward to working with anyone with ideas for moving us toward a better future for Maui County. We’ve never had the opportunity to measure the truth of our observations without an industry master. We deserve better. There is a reason we are here at this crossroads right now. I believe it is to take that path calling us home.