The US Congress has yet to come to an agreement on a $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill. Pending their decision, Hawaii will officially welcome visitors to the islands on November 1. Could it be our “back to normal?” Should it be?
Before the global pandemic changed everything in March 2020, our economy was booming, by conventional measures. The unemployment rate was below 3% and Maui had broken its own visitor arrival records for four consecutive years. When visitor arrivals approached 3 million per year, we also learned that more isn’t necessarily better.
In 1962, Maui’s first resort hotel, the Royal Lahaina, opened in Ka’anapali. Our county’s population was just under 40,000 when Amfac Inc. launched the plan to supplement our “a note” plantation economy with tourism. No one could have predicted how quickly this nascent industry would become the dominant economic force in Maui County. Fast forward to 2021. In less than 60 years, tourism has spread out of resort areas and into our neighborhoods, exacerbating a chronic housing shortage and inflating an already high cost of living.
Maui County is more vulnerable after the pandemic than before. Poor infrastructure, an unbalanced economy, and a reliance on unreliable supply chains for our food and fuel mean we are a natural or man-made disaster. My four pillars of the Stimulus Package include sizable tourism, upgrading green infrastructure, diversifying our economy, and strengthening Maui County’s assets. With the exception of temporary vacation rentals, these issues have been with us for a very long time.
It took decades for tourism to overtake our plantation economy to transform into industrial tourism. As the hospitality industry revamps its comeback, managed and regenerative tourism is the new ideal. I understand the calls for immediate restrictions on tourism, but I think evolution, not revolution, is the most sensible path. The easiest way to rebuild our economy is to support our hospitality industry while supporting other industries.
Our global environment is at risk and Maui County is now facing climate change and sea level rise. Planned federal infrastructure funds can help build and improve roads and bridges and help relocate coastal highways inland to prevent flooding. We can also use federal funds to improve our water and wastewater harvesting systems as well as environmental restoration and broadband upgrades throughout the county. These investments will generate work for the construction trades and offer new career opportunities to young people on the island. This necessary infrastructure will also accelerate the development of residential housing – especially affordable rentals and accessible housing for working families.
Technology will drive our economic diversification program by maximizing the potential of our research and technology park in Kihei. Everyone wins when our best and brightest can stay home, or come home, for lucrative STEM careers. Aerospace, astronomy, renewable energy, ocean science, and ecosystem restoration are other technology-related possibilities. Investing in healthcare that incorporates best practices from East and West can strengthen conventional medicine with preventative wellness. These changes will require changes in the curricula of our schools and universities as today’s youth prepare for a better future.
Finally, my administration will continue to strengthen Maui County’s assets by acquiring land for new housing that local residents can afford. We also plan to create more parks, nature and cultural reserves for future generations. All of these things are possible when we work together.
The people of Maui County are just emerging from the worst health and economic crisis in modern history. Let us not go back to the status quo by seeking more economic growth at all costs. Instead, let’s find our way home. Let’s build an adapted, diversified economy, compatible with our territory and our people.
* “Our County” a column by Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino discusses county issues and county government activities. The column alternates with “3 minutes of advice” One week-end out of two.