Maui Election

Three Maui County mayor candidates see tourism management as a platform priority

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Three candidates for Maui County mayor unveiled Saturday what they would do to manage tourism during a time when the islands have reopened to near-record numbers of visitors.

Alana Kay, author and publisher, Mike Molina, Maui County Council member, and Jonah Lion, eco-cultural tour guide, each said the issue would be a priority in their administrations. The three discussed ways to balance the key economic driver with resident quality of life, infrastructure needs and natural resource preservation. 

“It’s a case where Maui is being loved to death,” Molina said.

The three spoke on other key topics, including affordable housing, homelessness, water issues, budget priorities and economic diversification, during Akakū’s Mayoral Invitational Forum on Saturday at the outletʻs Kahului headquarters. 

The forum, which aired live on Akakū across three channels, also invited candidates Cullen Bell and Kim Brown, who were not able to attend. It was moderated by Chivo Ching-Johnson, Akakūʻs director of government access.

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Akaku’s presentation was the second part of a mayoral forum sponsored by Maui Realtors Association, Maui Chamber of Commerce and Maui Hotel Lodging Association that featured candidates Mayor Michael Victorino, Maui County Council Member Kelly King and retired 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen Jr. on Thursday at Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

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During Saturday’s forum, Molina said that tourism management would be a priority if he is elected as mayor and a “carrying capacity study” would be done. He said he supported in council a hotel moratorium that places a pause on new visitor accommodations so the impacts of over-tourism can be studied. 

“Why are we trying to build new hotel accommodations when the employees don’t have housing,” he said.

Although Maui doesn’t need more marketing because it is in high demand, Molina said the narrative needs to change for Hawai’i, which is not a place to visit, “frolic and do crazy things.”

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“Come here with reverence, much like if you were to go to Rome,” he said. “You don’t go to Rome to party and do all kinds of stuff, you go for the reverence that it gives off and the cultural and historical aspects.”

While tourism is a substantial part of the economy, high visitor volumes are having major impacts on infrastructure, resident quality of life and natural resources. Recent state data showed that Maui County had its highest monthly number of visitors since the pandemic. Economists predict it will be a few years before the county and the state meet and exceed historic highs set in 2019, when visitors reached more than 3 million for Maui County and more than 10 million for Hawaiʻi.

Molina said tourism management could include a reservation system for Hāna and other culturally sensitive areas, a fee system for nonresidents at county parks and working with industry stakeholders and the community on a path forward.

“We really need to respect the quality of life for residents,” he said.

Kay said that tourism management is one of her “chief topics” as well. She said many residents agree the island has hit a point of over-tourism.

“We do have a carrying capacity crisis that’s going on,” she said. “I think a lot of us feel that way.”

Instead of one person dictating how tourism should be managed, Kay said the community needs to come together to discuss what tourism management means and get all ideas on the table. 

“We need to come together as a community and decide what is managed tourism, that’s not something that one person should be dictating because it impacts everybody — just like the shutdown did in 2020,” she said.

Kay said Maui Visitors Bureau and Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority should be increasing messaging that steers educational, eco-tourism, voluntourism and holistic healing values.

Lion, too, said tourism management is a priority. 

As a guide who teaches visitors about ecosystem health, tourism can be a vehicle to instruct. 

“It’s an educational opportunity,” he said. “As people come in to learn more about the history of Maui about the history of Hawaiʻi, to seek in more about the culture.”

Right now, though, it’s a “zoo out there.” Lion described Hāna as a madhouse at various locations and said there should be more training and protocol to enter the culturally sensitive area. Perhaps visitors shouldn’t go to Hāna without a trained tour guide, an approach that would help produce jobs for local residents.

Management needs to bridge the gap between the resident and the visitor experience, he said. HTA studies have shown correlations between resident and visitor satisfaction.

“It’s a lose-lose (right now),” Lion said. “How do we change it into a win-win.”

Maui and other Neighbor Islands rely more heavily on tourism, according to economists. The candidates offered ways to diversify the economy away from the visitor industry. 

Kay highlighted agriculture. Lion said Maui needs to continue to grow its own food, along with crops such as hemp. Molina emphasized education, health care professional training and agriculture as ways to diversify the economy.

To view the full Akakū Mayoral Invitational Forum, visit Akakūʻs website.

Kehaulani Cerizo
Kehaulani Cerizo was born and raised on Maui and worked for nearly 15 years as a news reporter, copy editor and features editor at daily newspapers. She earned awards at The Maui News in Wailuku and at Today’s Local News in San Diego.
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