Antelope Valley Press
Maui mayor asks airlines for fewer tourists amid travel boom
HONOLULU — For nearly a year, Maui residents had their tropical oasis virtually to themselves.
Then the visitors all came flooding back.
“Over-tourism” has long been a complaint of locals on the Hawaiian island that is among the world’s most popular getaways: congested roads, crowded beaches, packed restaurants.
But as the US begins to emerge from the pandemic, Maui is reeling from some of the same strains seen on the mainland, like a shortage of hospitality workers. And its restaurants, still operating at limited capacity, are struggling to keep up.
Now, as cooped-up mainlanders return in droves, Maui officials are making an unusual plea to airlines: Please don’t bring so many people to our island.
“We don’t have the authority to say stop, but we are asking the powers to be to help us,” Mayor Michael Victorino said at a recent news conference.
Hawaii has had some of the nation’s most stringent Coronavirus public health restrictions, and it’s the only state that hasn’t fully reopened, in part due to its remote location and limited hospitals. Also high on people’s minds is the memory of diseases that wiped out 80% of the Native Hawaiian population in the century after Europeans arrived.
The governor doesn’t plan on lifting all restrictions until 70% of the state’s population is vaccinated. As of Friday, 58% were.
Yet Hawaii has become an attractive destination as other states ease rules, particularly because some overseas travel is still restricted. And Maui is a favorite spot for vacationers from the US mainland, where the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has been robust.
The Hawaii Tourism said 215,148 visitors came to the island in May compared to just 1,054 during the same month last year, when tourism all but shut down amid COVID-19 fears and Hawaii’s requirement that travelers quarantine upon arrival. That’s not far off May 2019, when 251,665 visitors arrived.
Even more are expected over the July 4 holiday weekend, with the Maui Visitors Bureau anticipating arrivals will at least equal 2019 levels.
Restaurants, which are operating at 50% capacity, are feeling the crunch.
“We’re under more pressure than we’ve been in preCOVID, that’s for damn sure,” said Jack Starr, who manages Kimo’s in Lahaina, which has a reservation wait list almost two months out.
Eateries will be allowed to start filling 75% of their seats later this week, but Starr says the employee shortage and a six-foot distancing requirement for tables leave their hands tied.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “You got to take that down to three feet, and we might have something going here.”
At his news conference, the mayor also pointed to illegal parking along the famed Hana Highway, a two-lane country road that winds its way along Maui’s lush northern coast, with the ocean on one side and breathtaking valleys and waterfalls on the other. Tourists pull over to take pictures, blocking traffic and fueling worries 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 cargo. “Without airlift, people don’t come.”
Victorino said he has asked airlines to voluntarily limit seats to Maui, but declined to say which he spoke to. The companies are under no obligation to do as he asks, and it’s unclear if any would.