Could capping Maui’s visitor numbers help curb overtourism? The groups continue to argue over the proposal

Community members and hotel workers rally against a proposed visitor lodging restriction in Wailuku today before a Maui Planning Commission hearing on Resolution 22-70. PC: Courtesy of Hawaii Hotel Alliance
Industry workers and lobbyists are rallying this morning in Wailuku against a proposed visitor accommodation restriction. Maui County Council members said the restriction would not affect existing homes and jobs.

Maui’s tourism industry and other community members have once again debated whether placing limits on the number of guest rooms will help reduce overtourism.

About 30 people spoke Tuesday before the Maui Planning Commission, which is considering whether to recommend a measure that would make a two-year moratorium on hotel construction more permanent.

Opponents say restricting visitor accommodation will not reduce visitor numbers; this step will negatively affect the construction work; and this rule will have unintended consequences, such as encouraging illegal vacation rentals.

Proponents say the visitor industry has experienced unbridled growth for too long, resulting in negative impacts on natural resources, infrastructure and residents’ quality of life. They argue that more hotel rooms are not needed and people will not come unless they can book in advance.

Similar to the moratorium that went into effect in January, the measure would allow existing temporary housing units, but prevent the construction or conversion of future ones. It would also prohibit the temporary parking of campers and recreational vehicles used for temporary accommodation unless permitted by zoning and permitting, among other changes.

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It currently has more than 24,000 visitor accommodation units, according to the county’s 2021 property assessment.

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Even if the commission doesn’t recommend a limit, the Maui County Council will have the final say. So far, advisory committees in Paya Haiku and Khana have recommended approval with the department’s amendments.

However, on Tuesday, industry representatives showed that they will not go down without a fight. People with jobs related to tourism and construction demonstrated in Wailuku before a planning meeting.

“At the end of the day, this bill is not about banning tourists from coming, and if the goal is to manage tourism, limiting transient rooms is not the way to do it,” Maui resident Lahela Aiwohi, vice president of the Hawai’i Hotel Alliance, said at the rally. “Tourists will continue to come and we will see more tourists looking for illegal short-term rentals and pushing them into our community.”

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In addition, about 20 individuals, including hotel lobbyists, workers and union representatives, as well as people from the construction and smaller temporary lodging sectors, dominated testimony during the Maui Planning Commission.

Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, said the moratorium will not have the desired effect of limiting arrivals to the islands.

“This is a federal issue,” she said. “In effect, by introducing a cap, another hosting platform will emerge to make up for the losses.”

Paulson added that hotels are currently operating at or below 76% occupancy. Visitor arrivals data suggests that tourists are finding other places, possibly off-limits, illegal accommodation, to stay.

Bruce U’u, a lifelong Maui resident and field representative for the Hawaii Carpenters Union, acknowledged the frustration with tourism, saying he feels it every day living in Pai.

“But if we can’t stop a plane or a boat, we can’t stop anything,” he said. “If we talk about control or management or doing something with tourism, if the same thing comes with the same number of people, the same boat, nothing changes — we mix things up.”

About six residents supported the measure, far fewer than dozens of supporters during council hearings on the hotel moratorium.

Kula resident Dick Meier said Kahului Airport, which has historically had long lines, is a good example of Maui’s overtourism.

In addition, the Maui island plan and countywide policy plan discuss capping the number of visitor spaces and maintaining a sustainable balance between resident and visitor populations, he said.

The Maui Island Plan, which is part of the Maui County Code, requires visitors to be no more than one-third of the resident population, or 33%. In June, the number of visitors exceeded that figure by about 16%, according to the latest figures from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“We can’t stop people from buying a second home, but we can regulate the number of visitors on the island,” he said. “Because very, very few people come to Maui homeless. . . . By limiting the number of places to stay, we will be able to control over-tourism.”

Albert Perez, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, also said attendance is exceeding the Maui Island Plan target.

“The first step to solving the problem is to stop making it worse,” he said.

Rod Antone, former executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, said he is not testifying for or against the measure. However, he advocated that leaders take more time to study whether the existing moratorium is working before extending it indefinitely.

“(The proposal is) ready, shoot, aim — instead of ready, aim, shoot,” he said.

Introduced by Council Vice President Kiani Rawlins-Fernandez, the measure limits the number of temporary accommodation units to existing levels for properties in apartment and hotel districts, among other changes to Section 19, including a ban on the temporary parking of campers and recreational vehicles used for temporary accommodation, unless permitted by zoning and permit.

Transient housing includes hotels, residential apartments used for temporary occupancy, single-family bed and breakfasts, permitted/older single-family temporary housing, transient residential apartments, and apartments in hotel zones not used for temporary residence.

The meeting was adjourned until Tuesday so the South Maui Community Advisory Committee could formally make its recommendations. The Maui Planning Commission will likely take up the issue again in late September; the meeting will allow for public testimony.

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