Maui mayor calls on airlines to cut tourists amid travel boom


HONOLULU (AP) – For nearly a year, the people of Maui have had their tropical oasis virtually to themselves.

Then the visitors all returned in droves.

“Surplus tourism” has long been a complaint of residents of the Hawaiian island, which is one of the world’s most popular getaways: congested roads, crowded beaches, crowded restaurants.

But as the United States begins to emerge from the pandemic, Maui is reeling from some of the same tensions seen on the continent, such as a shortage of hospitality workers. And its restaurants, which still operate at limited capacity, are struggling to keep up.

Now, as the locked mainlanders return in droves, Maui officials are making an unusual appeal to the airlines: Please don’t bring so many people to our island.

“We do not have the power to say stop, but we ask the powers that be to help us,” Mayor Michael Victorino said at a recent press conference.

Hawaii has had some of the toughest public health restrictions on coronaviruses in the country, and it’s the only state that hasn’t fully reopened, in part due to its remoteness and limited hospitals. The memory of the diseases that wiped out 80% of the native Hawaiian population in the century after Europeans arrived is also very much in people’s minds.

The governor does not plan to lift all restrictions until 70% of the state’s population is vaccinated. As of Friday, 58% were.

Still, Hawaii has become an attractive destination as other states relax the rules, especially as some overseas travel is still restricted. And Maui is a favorite spot for vacationers in the Americas, where the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has been brisk.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority said 215,148 visitors came to the island in May, up from just 1,054 in the same month last year, when tourism was all but shut down amid COVID fears. -19 and Hawaii’s requirement to quarantine travelers upon arrival. It’s not far from May 2019, when 251,665 visitors arrived.

Even more is expected over the July 4th holiday weekend, with the Maui Visitors Bureau predicting arrivals to be at least equal to 2019 levels.

Restaurants, which are operating at 50% of their capacity, are feeling the squeeze.

“We’re under more pressure than before COVID, that’s for sure,” said Jack Starr, who manages Kimo’s in Lahaina, which has a reservation waiting list in nearly two months.

Restaurants will be allowed to start filling 75% of their seats later this week, but Starr says the staff shortage and a 6-foot (2-meter) distance requirement for tables leaves their hands tied.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “You have to reduce that to 3 feet, and we could have something here.”

During his press conference, the mayor also highlighted illegal parking along the famous Hana Highway, a two-lane country road that winds along Maui’s lush north coast, with the ocean on one side. and breathtaking valleys and waterfalls on the other. Tourists stop to take photos, blocking traffic and fueling concerns about what would happen if a fire truck or ambulance couldn’t pass.

Maui’s main airport in Kahului is also overcrowded and its emergency services are taxed, Victorino said.

“It’s the airlift that really drives all of this,” he said, using an airline industry term for transporting people and goods. “Without an airlift, people don’t come.

Victorino said he asked airlines to voluntarily limit seats on Maui, but declined to say who he spoke to. Businesses don’t have to do what he asks, and it’s unclear whether some would.

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said that as “Hawaii’s hometown airline,” the company recognizes the pressure the rebound in arrivals has placed on infrastructure, natural resources and communities. But he also noted that visitors are the engine of the state’s economic recovery.

He said Hawaiian Airlines looked forward to continuing to work with the mayor and other leaders to find solutions.

Alaska Airlines said it operates an average of 10 daily flights to Maui from the west coast of the United States, which is similar to the summer of 2019. The company said it understands residents’ concerns and recently met the mayor and council members to discuss how they can “work together to responsibly rebuild Maui’s tourism industry and economy.”

Not everyone thinks the solution is to limit air travel.

Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said he feared the mayor’s request would send a mixed message at a time when the tourism industry and the economy in general are recovering.

“People are still unemployed. And businesses are still struggling,” he said.

Hannemann instead urged cracking down on illegal vacation rentals and crowd control through user fees. Oahu did the latter, for example, by charging visitors for a popular and environmentally fragile beach called Hanauma Bay.

Maui County Council Member Kelly King said the problem was over-tourism. She pointed out that Maui’s community plan says the average daily traveler count should not exceed 33% of its 150,000 residents. But right now that number is around 42% to 45%.

She said the mayor’s appeal to airlines was a start, but she wanted the county to enact a bill she sponsored that would impose a moratorium on building new hotels in the south and west. of Maui, the largest tourist areas on the island.

King argued that the pandemic has underscored the risks of relying too much on tourism to fuel the economy, noting that Maui’s 34% unemployment rate has driven the country past travel abruptly. It has since improved to 10.4% but remains well above the pre-pandemic level of 2.1%.

City council member Yuki Lei Sugimura said residents are frustrated but appreciate travelers.

“Visitors are our number one economic engine. They create jobs. They are therefore very important to us. But people say we want to have a balance, ”she said.

In the meantime, many companies are working under stressful conditions, said Aman Kheiri of Sea House Restaurant in Lahaina.

“We encounter hostile guests, mostly tourists who are fed up with the regulations and the lack of restaurant reservations,” Kheiri said. “The question is, how can we accommodate the ever increasing number of tourists who arrive every day?”


Associated Press reporter Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska contributed to this report.


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