HONOLULU – For nearly a year, Maui residents practically had their tropical oasis to themselves.
Then the visitors came back all flooded.
On the Hawaiian island, one of the most popular destinations in the world, the locals have long complained of “over-tourism”: congested streets, overcrowded beaches, overcrowded restaurants.
But as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic, Maui is surging from some of the same tribes seen on the mainland, such as: Lack of staff in the hospitality industry. And the restaurants, which are still running on limited capacity, are struggling to keep up.
Now that the incarcerated mainland residents are returning in droves, Maui officials are making an unusual request to airlines: Please don’t bring so many people to our island.
“We do not have the power to say stop, but we ask the authorities to help us,” said Mayor Michael Victorino at a recent press conference.
Hawaii had some of the strictest coronavirus public health restrictions in the country, and it’s the only state that does has not fully reopened, partly due to its remote location and limited number of hospitals. Also on people’s minds is the memory of diseases that wiped out 80% of Hawaiian Native Americans in the century after the arrival of Europeans.
The governor doesn’t plan remove all restrictions up to 70% of the state’s population are vaccinated. On Friday it was 58%.
However, Hawaii has become an attractive travel destination as other states relax the rules, especially with some overseas travel still restricted. And Maui is a popular spot for vacationers from mainland USA, where the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has been robust.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority said 215,148 visitors came to the island in May, compared to just 1,054 in the same month last year when tourism nearly fell due to COVID-19 fears and Hawaii’s requirement to quarantine travelers on arrival has been closed. That’s not far from May 2019 when 251,665 visitors arrived.
Even more are expected on the July 4th holiday weekend, with the Maui Visitors Bureau expecting arrivals to hit at least 2019 levels.
Restaurants that are 50% full are feeling the crisis.
“We’re under more pressure than we were before COVID, that’s damn sure,” said Jack Starr, who runs Kimo’s in Lahaina, which has been on a reservation waiting list for almost two months.
Restaurants are allowed begin to occupy 75% of their places later that week, but Starr says the shortage of staff and a 6-foot (2-meter) separation requirement for tables keep their hands tied.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “You have to screw this down to 3 feet and maybe we have something going on here.”
At his press conference, the mayor also pointed out illegal parking on the famous Hana Highway, a two-lane country road that meanders along the lush north coast of Maui, with the ocean on one side and breathtaking valleys and waterfalls on the other. Tourists stop to take photos, block traffic, and worry about what would happen if a fire truck or ambulance didn’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 aviation industry term to refer to people and cargo. “People won’t come without an airlift.”
Victorino said he asked airlines to voluntarily restrict seats to Maui but declined to say who he spoke to. Companies are under no obligation to do what it tells them to, and it is unclear whether they would do so.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said the company, as “Hawaii’s home carrier,” is aware of the pressures the arrival recovery has put 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 looks forward to continuing to work with the mayor and other executives to find solutions.
Alaska Airlines said it operates an average of 10 daily flights from the U.S. west coast to Maui, similar to the summer of 2019. The company said it understands the concerns of local residents and recently met with the mayor and council members to discuss how they can “work” together for the responsible rebuilding of Maui’s tourism industry and economy. “
Not everyone thinks that curbing air travel is the answer.
Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said he feared the mayor’s request sends a mixed message at a time when both the tourism industry and the economy in general are struggling back.
“People are still unemployed. And companies are still struggling,” he said.
Instead, Hannemann demanded action against illegal holiday rentals and the control of crowds through user fees. Oahu has done the latter by, for example Charge visitors to a popular and polluting beach called Hanauma Bay.
Kelly King, a member of Maui county, said the problem is over-tourism. She pointed out that the Maui parish plan states that 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 request to airlines is a start, but she wants the county to pass a bill she sponsored that would put a moratorium on building new hotels in south and west Maui, the island’s largest tourist district, would impose.
Arguing the pandemic underscored the risks of over-reliance on tourism to boost the economy, King noted that Maui’s 34% unemployment rate led the nation after travel screeched to a halt. It has improved to 10.4% since then, but is still well above the pre-pandemic level of 2.1%.
City council member Yuki Lei Sugimura said residents are frustrated but appreciate travelers.
“The visitor – he is our number 1 economic engine. They create jobs. You are therefore very important to us. But people say we want to have a balance, ”she said.
Meanwhile, many companies are working under stress, said Aman Kheiri of Sea House Restaurant in Lahaina.
“We see hostile guests, mostly tourists, who are fed up with regulations and the lack of restaurant reservations,” said Kheiri. “The question is, how can we do justice to the steadily increasing number of tourists who arrive every day?”
Associate press journalist Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska contributed to this report.
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