The Hawaii Tourism Authority heard this message at a public meeting in Maui: Prioritize locals over visitors: Maui Now

The Hawaii Tourism Authority held a public meeting in Kahului Monday night to present its draft report, “Supporting Tourism to Restore Maui” — and to hear ideas, recommendations, concerns and questions.

What state agency officials and board members heard from the majority of the more than 200 attendees and on Zoom was this message: Prioritize locals over visitors.

“Please, these local people from the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii need housing. This should be a priority for everyone on Maui,” said the first speaker, a teacher who calls herself “Miss Lizzie.”

“We are ‘ohana.’ Give us this ability to cook, educate, work, garden and live our culture in our home. I am asking you to prioritize people over profit, the Hawaiian culture and community that you say you love.”

The draft plan was developed to best respond to the Tourism Emergency Declaration issued Aug. 19 by Hawaii Governor Josh Green and to spend $5 million in emergency funds over the next year.

While the fires directly affected a small portion of Maui, the entire island and state of Hawaii are also dealing with the economic fallout.

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Monday’s public meeting at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center was the only one scheduled during the 15-day comment period on the draft report, which ends Dec. 15. Public input will be included in the final report, which goes before the Hawaii Tourism Authority Board of Directors on Dec. 21 for approval. To submit a comment, click here.

The meeting began with a 40-minute presentation by the Hawaii Tourism Authority on its overall mission and draft report, which includes strategies and actions to revitalize visitation to all unaffected parts of Maui and support small businesses affected by the loss of tourism.

Before the fires broke out, the tourism body had already moved towards more restorative tourism at the urging of residents across the state.

Regenerative tourism aims to bring transformative experiences to guests while ensuring that cultural heritage and traditions are preserved and respected. It was named “Mālama Hawaiʻi”. Mālama means care, preservation and protection in Hawaiian.

But as a result of the problems caused by the fire disaster, Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Naho’opi’i said the Hawai’i tourism authority is “kind of pivoting again.” We now call him “Malama Maui”. How can we as the visitor industry Mālama Maui and support your needs … and address your issues and concerns?”

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On Aug. 31, the tourism authority’s board approved $2.6 million in funding for Maui’s marketing recovery plan, which centers around the new Mālama Maui campaign, which prioritizes the recovery of travel demand from the United States, the largest Maui visitor market.

The message to tourists includes respect, especially on the Westside, where workers and residents are still recovering from the trauma and devastation of the fire and may be living next door to them in a hotel.

The presentation also showed that housing support is one of six recommendations to be acted upon in 2024 by the tourism body. But many at the public meeting were angered by his prioritization at the bottom of the list.

The report’s recommendations:

  • 1A: Increase visibility and call-to-action for travel to Hawaii targeting high-potential markets.
  • 1B: Support businesses to continue to provide a consistent message that Maui is open to visitors.
  • 2. Support and encourage consistent messaging and communication with Maui residents, visitor industry stakeholders, and businesses.
  • 3. Support Maui’s small businesses that are experiencing a significant decrease in sales due to fewer visitors to the island.
  • 4. Expand Maui’s tourism product to provide new activities for visitors and support Maui businesses.
  • 5. Support the provision of long-term housing for bushfire-affected households living in visitor-type accommodation by supporting the communication efforts of temporary holiday home owners.

“So when you talk about all of that, number 5 is housing. You want our people to help the tourists when just after last week 600 people were moved out of the Westin and all the tourists were rolling into their rentals. … Our people are suffering,” said one woman, who did not identify herself.

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Almost everyone who spoke didn’t come up with ideas or recommendations for how to help the “tourism emergency,” but instead wanted to address the “housing emergency” by stopping — or limiting — visitors to West Maui while thousands of displaced Lahaina residents still live in hotels.

At a Hawaii Tourism Authority public meeting at the Maui Center for Arts and Culture, most of those in attendance felt that visitors are a priority during fire disaster recovery. PC: Cammy Clark (11.4.23)

Many were still angered by Governor Green’s decision to begin the return of tourism to unaffected areas of West Maui on October 8, just two months after the fire.

They wanted tourists to stop booking available Airbnbs and vacation rentals that could be used for temporary housing. They were tired of living in hotels and other temporary places, many of whom had moved several times in the four months since the fires and as the holiday season rolled around.

The people who came had so much to say that the comment period lasted an hour longer than scheduled after Maui County Council member Kiani Rawlins-Fernandez asked Hawaii Tourism Authority representatives to stay longer to to hear from the people who traveled from Lahaina.

Paele Kiacona, leader of the Fishing for Lahaina movement, which has been occupying a site for nearly a month on Kāʻanapali Beach, said, “We have been sleeping on the beach demanding decent housing for our people, right in the heart of Whalers Village.

“Just a few steps away, we see our people crying, asking for help, not knowing what to do, not knowing where to go. And you take 10 steps in the opposite direction, yeah, and you see the tourists moving, having the time of their lives.”

He said tourists have told him the message they got back home before coming to Hawaii was, “Maui needs your help. Maui needs your money. Please come and spend them here. This is the message they received. There was very little respect.”

The Hawaii Tourism Authority created the plan after about 15 meetings of the Permitted Disaster Response Coordination Group, which was chaired by Board Vice Chair Mahina Paishon Duarte and sought input from industry and community leaders on Maui and across the state. The agency hired consulting firm SMS Hawaii to help with the strategic plan, which also took into account economic data.

The immediate economic losses following the fires were one of the reasons for declaring a state of emergency for tourism, the leading contributor to the state’s economy.

Nine days after the Lahaina fire on Aug. 8, an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Maui was 75 percent empty, with only 50 people on the nearly 200-seat plane. PC: Cammy Clark (8.17.23)

According to the most recent data available, visitors to Maui spent $326.2 million in October, down nearly $110 million from October 2022. There were also 97,600 fewer arrivals than a year ago (132,908 in October 2023 compared to 230,512 in October 2022).

But what’s also troubling is that pending reservations for Maui are down for next year through October, compared to 2022, according to the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority cites a preliminary rapid needs assessment report from the Hawaii Department of Public Health that states, “Over one-third of wildfire survivor households ranked financial recovery and finding employment as their top need.”

The tourism body’s draft report added: “The longer a household’s main earner is unemployed, the more likely they are to leave the island.”

Maui’s unemployment rate dipped slightly to 7.4 percent in October, but was nearly 5 percent higher than in July before the fires, when it was just 2.8 percent.

“At a high level, too many people are too close to the edge, and that’s what drives our work,” said T. Ilihia Gionson, public relations officer for the tourism authority. “Let’s think about how we can help?” How can tourism help? Again, tourism is not everything, but what is the role of tourism as a contribution?’

With the loss of much of Lahaina, which was Maui’s tourism mecca, recommendation #4 in the plan was to expand tourism to other parts of the island and with new restoration tourism activities. This includes:

  • Introducing visitors to areas they may not have seen before, such as Upcountry, East Maui, Pāʻia, Makawao and Kīhei, and the activities, restaurants and small businesses available there.
  • Encourage small farmers, fishermen and business owners to come together to provide a product that can be ‘sold’ to tourism companies, hotels and restaurants. For example, no one will promote a “work in lo’i” activity that is offered only once a week, but by working together, 5 to 7 farmers can offer an activity every day and everyone can benefit from this additional source of income.
  • Remind hotels and shopping areas that many cultural practitioners are available to provide education and activities to residents and visitors.
  • On other islands, encourage day trips to Maui.

While there was a lot of negativity around tourism at the public meeting, Paichon Duarte said, “One big takeaway from what we heard from this is that those who spoke at today’s meeting are very supportive of a regenerative model of tourism that is more responsible and accountable to the people of Hawaii.”

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