Hawaii’s tourism authority will vote on Maui’s recovery plan

WAILEA, Maui >> Maui’s forecast visitor arrivals are still down through 2024, and the state’s total visitor numbers are down at a time when state revenue is needed to support Maui.

A challenge is that recovery is not as simple as just increasing visitor arrivals when it is clear that not everyone on Maui supports a return to pre-COVID-19 visitor arrivals. Those voices were among the loudest during the HTA’s Dec. 4 community hearing session, when the Hawaii Tourism Authority faced strong pushback against the draft of its plan to rebuild tourism on the island after the deadly wildfires. One attendee called the meeting a “giant gas session” and described tourism as a “fabricated toxic relationship”.

Meanwhile, research by SMS Consulting, the contractor hired by the HTA to develop its recovery plan, shows airline seats and travel intentions are falling as residents, businesses and potential visitors are confused by inconsistent and conflicting messages. In addition, SMS said visitors have also indicated they choose not to book Maui because of “high costs and change fees” and “out of respect for Lahaina residents.”

HTA Public Affairs Officer Ilihia Gionson said there were about 100,000 fewer visitors to Maui in October, Maui’s airline bookings were lower than usual and hotel bookings were lower than usual on Maui and throughout the state. Gionson added that Maui’s jobless claims, which peaked at 8,779 in the week of Sept. 16, were still at 5,039 in the week of Nov. 25, and that some of the decline could be due to workers leaving the island.

The HTA board is expected to vote Thursday on whether to adopt a recovery plan that could draw from a $5 million tourism emergency fund that was made available when Gov. Josh Green approved the agency’s request to declare a tourism emergency since August 8 wildfires that have killed at least 100 and destroyed thousands of buildings. The plan will complement the initiatives in the HTA’s tourism strategic plan and its community-led destination management action plans for each island.

HTA board chair-elect Mufi Hannemann said implementing a tourism recovery plan is important and will continue the second phase of the Malama (“care for”) Maui campaign. Hahnemann said the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau has already reached out to the core U.S. market with a plan to rebuild Maui. Now, he said, the HTA board will consider launching a new malama campaign that focuses on amplifying local voices who want to return to work.

“As much as we’ve focused on messaging about the right ways to give back to Maui with the respectful, considerate traveler and so on, I really feel like it’s time to move that message and make it one that’s heavily focused on our local (population) to show people who may still be resistant to tourism on the local scene that people want to get back to work,” Hahnemann said.

It envisions a fulcrum similar to the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association’s campaign led by fellow business partners Makaukauk — We’re Ready. This campaign promoted the October 2020 reopening of travel to the islands in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown and sent a message that Hawaii workers are ready to get back to work.

“I really believe there is a silent majority that is not as vocal that is concerned about housing and child care, but if you rank the priority, they will say they want to work,” he said. “We can’t just get local people to patronize (Maui tourism and businesses); we need visitors from far away – that’s why Maui hurts so much. I’m really excited about this announcement. I think it’s going to be really clear that people — whether they’re Filipino, Japanese, Tongan, Samoan, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Caucasian — they all want to get back to work.”

Hahnemann said the new locally focused Malama campaign will ensure more balanced tourism while supporting aspects of tourism recovery plans such as promoting consistent travel messaging, increasing travel arrivals from lucrative markets, supporting small businesses, expanding of Maui’s tourist attractions and supporting firefighting efforts, survivors are moving out of hotels and into longer-term housing.

Hanneman said the push for a locally focused malama campaign to get Maui people back to work is consistent with HTA’s earlier approval to increase additional marketing and branding budgets in 2024 to support the ongoing recovery of incoming visitors from the US, Japan and Canada.

The increases, which offset COVID-19-related budget cuts, are expected to meet a forecast slowdown in key visitor markets that are expected to lead to slower growth in 2024 for Hawaii’s economy, according to the fourth-quarter forecast , published Friday by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. Still, economists said the economic fallout from the Maui wildfires was somewhat smaller than expected with a faster-than-expected recovery in Maui’s visitor industry and a faster-than-expected recovery in partial employment.

While some in Hawaii’s visitor industry, including Hahnemann, view UHERO’s forecast as somewhat optimistic, grass shoots are emerging on Maui. For example, additional Maui hotel renovations, such as the one being completed at the Fairmont Kea Lani, are bringing new inventory and improvements back to market at a time when the recovery needs support.

Chelsea Leavitt, Fairmont’s director of marketing and public relations, said the resort has completed a culturally focused renovation of 413 suites and 37 villas. Livit said it is also renovating the entire lobby and on Thursday will open a new 2,000-square-foot cultural center, Hale Kukuna, which will become the focal point of the lobby and remain open 24/7 for employees, the community and guests.

In January, the resort will open the oceanfront Pilina Bar and Restaurant, which Leavitt said will become an extension of the adjacent cultural center and serve 90 percent Hawaiian produce.

Kamahiwa Kawa’a, Fairmont Kea Lani’s inaugural Manager of Hawaiian Culture, said, “Hale Kukuna is designed to be a living, breathing space for Hawaiian culture to be taught, shared, thrived and survived. What really sets it apart from all other cultural centers is that it’s a place where people can come in and really feel like they belong. They can take different things that are on display and use them, learn about them and engage with them instead of just looking at them or reading a map about them.

Kawa’a, a native Hawaiian who was born and raised on Maui, added, “I hope Hale Kukuna is that bridge that connects the community and tourism and gives some light and some hope to the tourism industry, especially here at Fairmont Kea Lani truly took a stand to ensure that Hawaiian culture and the integrity of Native Hawaiians is the highest priority.”

The Fairmont renovation is part of a wave of massive investment and repositioning on Maui, such as Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria resort; The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua; and Westin Maui Resort & Spa, Ka’anapali. They’re all part of a nationwide hotel improvement cycle that, as of 2019, has topped $2 billion.

Keith Vieira, director of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said the Maui renovation is unlikely to have a significant impact on the downturn in the short term because “you have to have demand to increase revenue. Until you have demand, whatever you do, it won’t have much of an impact.”

However, he said improvements in Maui are likely to support a recovery in 2025 when demand for groups and more transit travel returns.

“Maui has some of the highest average daily rates, and to maintain that, you have to keep your product newer and fresher than the typical airport product. Your customers have higher expectations and you have to maintain that position,” he said.

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