Dan Seligmann of Long Island, N.Y., and his family had envisioned lush, green forests with magical bamboo gardens and waterfalls before starting down the Hana Highway during a visit to Maui in July.
Instead, they came upon a more familiar kind of jungle as they navigated bumper-to-bumper traffic while winding around the 600 curves and hairpin turns that make up the 51-mile historic highway from Kahului to Hana.
“The scenery was amazing, and we hiked to a great pool and waterfall off the road,” Seligmann said. “Unfortunately, the winding and narrow road was very crowded, so it made finding parking at the stopping points and sites difficult. The black-sand beach was nice but wall-to-wall people. Although we enjoyed the road to Hana, we thought it would be a little more rustic, a little more the ‘road less traveled.’”
The rise of social media, travel apps and vacation rental hosting sites has made it more difficult for tourists and residents to find secluded experiences on any island, especially Maui, where tourism arrivals rose from 1.8 million in 2009 to 2.9 million in 2018, a 54% gain that was the largest increase on any island.
Maui, with a population of roughly 152,000, also boasts the state’s highest ratio of visitors to residents. On any given day some 30% of the people on the island are visitors, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates from 2018. Testifiers at a Maui County Council committee meeting Tuesday said the island’s population was now, on average, one tourist for every 2.4 residents — a measure that’s nearly 10 percent over the suggesed limits set by the Maui Island Plan, the adopted guide for Maui County growth.
Maui also has the best rental car facility in the state, a $340 million, multilevel wonder with an electric tram which opened in May. The investment harks back to HTA’s plan of a few years ago to grow Hawaii tourism by boosting visits to the neighbor islands, which were perceived as offering more opportunity for growth in visitor arrivals.
HTA’s goal for neighbor island tourism now favors visitor experience, resident sentiment and spending over tourism arrivals.
But changing course is difficult. Through the first six months of the year, HTA reported that Maui visitor spending decreased nearly 2% to $2.6 billion, while visitor arrivals grew 4% to more than 1.5 million. That’s the opposite of HTA’s goal.
In the first half of 2019, trans-Pacific air seats to Kahului rose more than 6%, the highest increase of any county. In comparison, air seats to Honolulu and Lihue grew about 1% and dropped 28% in Hilo and nearly 1% in Kona.
The state Department of Transportation reports that Kahului Airport served more than 7 million passengers in 2018 and rents more cars than any other airport in the state, with an average of 2,200 cars rented daily, more than twice the amount at Honolulu.
Roughly eight hotels also are in various stages of development or expansion as investors have noted Maui’s robust hotel performance.
Disagreement on impacts
Such growth has been good for the island’s economy, which depends on tourism to supply 75% of its jobs, also the most of any island. It’s given Maui residents like Mike White, general manager of Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel and former Maui County Council chairman, the opportunity to “stay in the place that I love and raise a family.”
“The biggest benefit to the visitor industry is that it brings people from all over the place to help us pay our bills,” said White, whose father also worked in the visitor industry, as do three of his five children.
White acknowledged that some areas of Maui are feeling the strain of the increase in people. But the Makawao resident said the impacts, which also are due to residential population growth, are relative.
“Your view of whether we are at the tipping point or not depends on where you live and where you spend most of your time,” White said. “Government has a lot of work to do, and the industry does, but I don’t think we are at or near the tipping point.”
However, Kula resident Dick Mayer, who formerly served on both the Maui General Plan Advisory Committee and Maui Planning Commission, disagrees. The retired professor said the negative impacts of tourism growth — increased traffic and noise; the proliferation of illegal vacation rentals, which have cut into affordable housing and changed the fabric of communities; and the degradation of natural resources — have strained the island’s carrying capacity.
“Do we have over-tourism? Absolutely,” Mayer said. “I used to tell my classes, ‘Let’s go have a picnic at Charley Young Beach,’ now called Kamaole Beach Park 1, in Kihei, and we’d play volleyball. Not a single person was on the beach, not one. Today you can’t even park there, let alone have that experience.”
While Maui can’t stop visitors from disembarking, he said the Hawaii Constitution allows counties “to plan and manage the growth of its population in a more restrictive manner than the state.”
He proposed that Maui limit tourism by restricting rental car registrations or perhaps by closing down the airport at certain hours at night, which would limit the number of flights into Maui. Marketing also could be reduced, he added.
Supporting sustainable tourism
Managed tourism — the idea that the negative impacts of tourism growth could be alleviated through better management of hot spots — is among the more widely touted solutions.
Gregg Nelson, general manager of the 163-room Napili Kai Beach Resort and a board member of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association and the Maui Visitors Bureau, suggested that whether over-tourism exists on Maui is a perception best answered by each individual.
“When I opened a hotel in Wailea in 1978, many of the people that I interviewed for jobs complained to me that Maui had just exploded in terms of development. In relation to where we are now, oh my god, in 1978 we were a quiet little village. It’s really all relative,” Nelson said.
In Nelson’s view there is room for managed tourism growth; he noted that Maui’s hotels still have occupancy to fill thousands more rooms a night. But Nelson said determining the “sweet spot” is up to the visitor industry, government and the community. That’s happening now, he said.
While some question whether sustainable tourism growth could even be part of Maui’s future, others are more optimistic that it will transpire as a result of current government and community planning and a growing willingness among tourism marketers to include tourism management in their plans.
HTA is supporting community programs such as Ma Ka Hana Ka‘Ike, a vocational training program for at-risk youth in Hana, where more than two-thirds of the population is Native Hawaiian. While the money doesn’t directly benefit tourism, it helps restore balance to an isolated community that’s feeling the impacts of tourism growth.
“We feel the pressure of outside influences and outside money, which is changing the demographic and layout of our community,” said Lipoa Kahaleuahi, executive director of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike. “Our sacred spaces, our local spaces, are highly trafficked. Our resources are being overutilized and over-harvested. Transient vacation rentals have added to the pressure on affordable housing.”
Still, Kahaleuahi said tourism has created opportunities for entrepreneurial Hana residents. Investment by the HTA and other supporters has allowed Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike and its umbrella programs to empower local young people to practice their culture, gain farming and building skills, nourish the land, feed the community and serve as caretakers, especially for kupuna and the generations to come.
“We need access to land, natural resources — that’s a fundamental need as humans. That’s something that HTA is at the forefront of funding. There needs to be acknowledgement of the communities as they are. People come because they want to be isolated to experience rawness. If we lose that, if we don’t allow people to live the way they want to live, we’ll be creating different places,” she said.
Strategic planning underway
Maui Department of Planning Director Michele Chouteau McLean said the biggest complaint about illegal vacation rentals is “usually from neighbors who don’t like having different people coming through their neighborhood.”
McLean said the department is poised to address that concern and others related to the spread of illegal vacation rentals. It has drafted a bill that would implement a charter amendment passed in November that includes the strictest crackdown on illegal rentals of any county: a $20,000 initial fine and $10,000-per-day penalty thereafter for the first offense. The bill will be ready soon for consideration by the County Council, she said.
In fiscal year 2019, Maui became the state’s first county to hire a contractor called LodgingRevs to catch vacation rental owners who are advertising units that aren’t properly zoned. The department also hired a new clerk and two more inspectors, bringing its count of zoning inspectors to eight, she said.
Longtime Maui visitor industry executive Terryl Vencl also is heading up tourism strategic planning at the behest of Mayor Michael P. Victorino, who has said tourism on Maui needs to be managed. Vencl’s group of about a dozen advisers has been meeting twice monthly since January. Draft recommendations are expected to be presented to the mayor early this fall.
Vencl, who is serving as a community liaison in the mayor’s office, said discussions have included ground transportation, airports, harbors, natural resources, vacation rentals, culture, history, visitor education, ocean safety, beach management and commercialization, changing visitor dynamics and more.
“The goal is to make tourism work for residents and visitors alike,” Vencl said.