Maui tourist surge raises tensions, renews calls for visitor limits, new fees
HAIKU, HAWAII — Early-rising tourists started pulling into the small parking lot at Twin Falls at Wailele Farm, one of the first Instagrammable stops on the all-day adventure that is the road to Hana, before 7 a.m. on the last day in June.
Ute Viole, the ranger and unofficial historian on the privately owned farm, rushed around arranging orange and yellow cones on the edges of the lot in a bid to prevent visitors from parking haphazardly on the side of the winding, single-lane road when the 43 spaces fill up, as they do every day by 8 a.m.
Her supporting role as traffic cop, always a challenge at the free waterfall and hiking spot, has become a thankless job as cooped-up travelers return to Maui in numbers approaching pre-pandemic levels, and its former overflow lot is closed due to nearby construction. Twin Falls is suddenly turning away droves of visitors, and some aren’t taking the rejection lightly.
“We get cussed at every day,” Viole said, compared with pre-pandemic times when “we never, ever, ever got yelled at, cussed at.”
Ainahau Harold, a Maui native and manager of Twin Falls, says swearing isn’t the most egregious behavior they’ve seen this spring and summer among a minority of visitors.
“They’ve run over our cones. They’ll try to hit you with their car,” she said. “It gets a little dicey here.”
The incidents of incivility, which employees at hard-to-book restaurants and activity providers in Maui say they also face every day, aren’t limited to tourists.
Visitors to Waiʻānapanapa State Park, home to a popular black sand beach near Hana, have filled online message boards with complaints about rude employees since the park began requiring reservations and charging fees earlier this year as a pilot program to control crowds. Officials strictly monitor the three-hour time limit.
A tourist who visited in May said in a TripAdvisor review that his family was locked in the parking lot by an employee, who screamed profanities at them for lifting the gate to get out. “I have never been treated like this by a state worker in my entire life and felt like a hostage in this state park.”
Last week, the driver of a pickup truck that barreled into a packed beach parking lot full of families at Makena State Park near Wailea shouted “Go home” to a USA TODAY reporter who politely gestured to slow down, turning around to repeat it again on the way out of the lot.
Friction between visitors and locals is nothing new in overcrowded tourism hot spots like Maui, but the rapid rebound in travel combined with lingering COVID restrictions and high post-pandemic expectations of residents and tourists have exacerbated the situation. That has led to renewed calls to limit or better manage traffic and crowds with new tourist fees, reservation requirements for popular beaches and parks and other measures being implemented or proposed.
Maui Mayor Michael Victorino, in a head-turning request, has gone so far as ask airlines to temporarily reduce flights to the island so the already cramped Kahului Airport isn’t further strained. Transportation Security Administration screening wait times already have exceeded an hour at peak times this summer.
“I’m not saying stop (flights.) It’s a pause,” he said in an interview at his central Maui office. “Let’s reset some of the issues we’re having. Lets get them rectified. Because the worst thing we want to do is you have a bad time here in Maui. You’re not going to come back.”
Victorino admits the chances of airlines cutting back are “slim to none” and said even a spacing out of departures and landings throughout the day would help.
Hawaii hotelier: ‘We want to be real as to what we can handle in the short term’
Mike White, a Hawaii native who has managed the beachfront Kaanapali Beach Hotel since 1985, said most in the hospitality industry agree with Victorino’s sentiment that measures need to be taken to preserve a good visitor experience but that the government’s options are limited.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think the mayor has many tools in his tool chest,” said White, who previously served on the Maui County City Council and as a state legislator.
White said his 432-room hotel and at least a couple others have recently taken steps of their own, including limiting occupancy. It’s partly a restaurant staffing issue, he said, but mostly a restaurant supply issue, with vendors unable to fill hotels’ growing orders for staples like linens and menu must-haves, including fresh fish. This at a time when the hotel just opened a swank oceanfront restaurant and bar, Huihui.
“We want to be real as to what we can handle in the short term,” he said.
Veteran Hawaii chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman, who is seeing wait lists as long as 1,000 people a day at some of his restaurants, said the island needs to strike a better balance, short and long term. He wonders if a tourist tax is an answer.
“It’s such a wonderful place; it’s going to get loved to death,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly how you do it.”
How busy is Maui this summer?
Maui is closing in on 2019 visitor levels despite a lack of international visitors and conference attendees. In May, a month before summer tourism season kicked off, an average 58,412 visitors per day were on the island of Maui, compared with 956 in May 2020 and 60,389 visitors per day in May 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Over the July Fourth weekend, daily passenger arrivals at the one-terminal airport surpassed 2019 levels for the holiday and were the highest passenger counts since Christmas Eve 2019. (The airport numbers include tourists and returning residents.) All this before the July 8 lifting of a major COVID travel restriction: vaccinated travelers on domestic flights no longer have to take a COVID test before departure to Hawaii.
Victorino said economists and other experts initially were predicting a rebound to 2019 tourism levels in 2022 and early 2023.
The tourism rebound is critical to the economy – Maui’s unemployment rate soared from about 2% to more than 30% during the early months of the pandemic as the tourism industry collapsed. Hawaii was effectively closed to vacationers for seven months, from mid-March through mid-October, when travelers from the mainland could start bypassing mandatory quarantines by showing a negative COVID test.
But the travel surge is straining Maui, Victorino said. Roads are clogged again, beach parking is difficult, and there are shortages of everything from rental cars to restaurant reservations, the latter due in part to lingering COVID capacity limits. The state increased restaurant capacity to 75% percent on July 8, but restaurateurs say it’s mostly useless because six feet of social distancing is still required. They hope Hawaii Gov. David Ige lifts all capacity restrictions in early August.
“All I’m trying to do is, at this point, make sure that we have a great experience for you, the visitor, and that our residents are comfortable and welcoming because if they’re upset and unhappy, that’s dangerous, too,” Victorino said. “It’s really trying to find that balance.”
Paradise, interrupted: ‘We have gotten a taste of what it’s like to not have so many people here’
Logan Cabanilla, a 21-year-old college student who grew up in Kihei, on Maui’s southwest shore, has mixed feelings about the return of tourists.
The Pacific University business major works in the tourism industry as a luau dancer during school breaks, a job that went away in 2020 and only recently returned.
“That’s where the money is,” he said.
But the long break without tourists, something he had never experienced, spoiled him and others on the island.
He recalls climbing to the top of Black Rock, a popular cliff-diving spot on Kaanapali Beach, a tourist magnet in West Maui lined with luxury resorts and condo towers, last year and not seeing anyone on the long stretch of beach below. Parking was a cinch everywhere.
“It was just kind of quiet. Things were quiet around here,” Cabanilla said. “People were in a better mood in a way.”
Last week, the beach was jammed with visitors snorkeling, scouting sea turtles, sunbathing and boarding sunset catamaran cruises.
White understands. He cherished the shortened drive times on the island during the past year and called a recent Lahaina traffic jam “a shock to my system.”
“We’ve had the island all to ourselves for a long, long period of time. A lot of us got very used to it,” he said. “But I’m in the business, and because I’ve got a whole lot of employees who depend on us to operate, I’m happy to see the guests back.”
Jason Jerome, who owns Lahaina Music with his wife, is thrilled tourists are flooding back to Hawaii. Before the pandemic, he offered ukulele lessons at a variety of resorts in addition to lessons and sales and rentals of instruments at their shop in the West Maui Center. Those dried up during the pandemic, and he turned to Zoom lessons with students around the world and YouTube videos.
On Monday, he was back teaching ukulele to hotel guests under a gazebo at Royal Lahaina Resort. It was the first resort to invite him back, in January, but it was a lonely gig until the crowds started arriving in April.
“I’d come here and bring the ukuleles, and the nobody would be here. I’d just play for the whales and shoot videos and put them on Facebook,” he said. “So I’m very happy and blessed to be here really. This is a great way to start your day.”
‘Thank God we’ve got a kitchen in the (rental) house’
Many vacationers visiting Maui this summer are on their first trips in more than a year and are paying sky-high prices for hotels and hard-to-find car rentals unless they booked months ago. (Rooms at an airport Courtyard Marriott were going for more than $500 a night during my stay; I opted for significantly cheaper rates, and better locations, at an Airbnb and the Royal Lahaina, though each was pricier than usual. The rental car tab: $1,400 for a Kia Soul that reeked of smoke.)
Tourists are arriving in Maui with high expectations, and those who didn’t plan ahead are quickly greeted with the reality of hard-to-book reservations for restaurants and activities.
Teresa Frazier, an operating room nurse from northern California, usually wings it on vacation in Maui but was warned about the need for reservations a few days ahead of her extended family trip in early July.
It was too late. The mother of two couldn’t find openings for ziplining or ATVs, the latter operator blaming staffing issues. She found openings at their favorite luau in Wailea but passed because the prices went up since it wasn’t buffet-style anymore due to COVID. The only activity she found availability for: Maui Ocean Center, an aquarium her 14- and 10-year old kids last visited when they were babies.
Frazier said the only restaurant reservations she nabbed was at a sushi restaurant in Kihei, thanks to a family friend who lives on Maui.
“Thank God we’ve got a kitchen in the (rental) house,” she said.
Frazier calls herself a big planner but says she “lets it all go” in Hawaii and wasn’t ruffled by this summer’s challenges.
That’s not so easy for others. Hotelier White said staffers have reported a couple recent clashes with guests to him.
“When you add these challenges to a guest’s dreams of a wonderful, flawless easy vacation, the trigger is probably going to get pulled a little more than it would otherwise,” White said.
Merriman, whose Maui restaurants include Merriman’s, an upscale farm-to-table restaurant in Kapalua and two Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman happy hour hot spots, said employees at the front of the restaurants are getting an earful from some unhappy visitors who can’t get in.
“Our greeters at some of our restaurants are almost getting PTSD,” Merriman said.
The problem is so bad, Merriman’s in Kapalua has started scheduling at the entrance to referee any disputes.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maui, Hawaii, travel: Island struggles with COVID tourism rebound