Thursday, December 4, 2008

Trouble in Paradise

©2008 by LeeZard
All Photos ©2008 by LeeZard
There’s trouble in paradise – Hawaiian paradise. That’s trouble with a capital “T,” it rhymes with “D” and that stands for DOLLARS. Make that tourist dollars and the trouble is, there aren’t enough tourist dollars flowing into the 50th state, especially Maui.

Tourism accounts for up to 70% of Maui’s economy. It is one of the world’s most popular destinations. Conde Nast Traveler readers consistently vote Maui “the best island in the world.”

Maui is my favorite of Hawaii’s tourist-popular islands. There is something for everyone. You have Lahaina, the center of tourism with its cruise ship harbor, funky shops, hip clubs, galleries and restaurants; Ka’anapali to the north with its high-end condo resorts, hotels and the upscale shoppers’ mall, Whalers Village; and, Kihei to the south with Ma’alaea Bay, its collection of various tour boats and the island’s absolutely fabulous aquarium.

If you want to escape the regular Maui tourism haunts, there are sparkling little beach parks along the south coast; the breath-taking “Road to Hana” on the north coast; a harrowing one-lane twisted torture of a drive around one end of the island and the mystic Mt. Haleakala, at 10,000 feet, the largest dormant volcano on the planet. Many brave souls actually drive, albeit slowly, to the summit of Haleakala for a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise view.

These days, you don’t have to worry about crowds. Even before the current financial crisis overtook the rest of the nation, Maui’s economy absorbed a pair of serious body blows. Last spring both ATA – a low-cost trans-Pacific carrier – and Aloha Airlines went out of business, putting a serious dent in the number of visitors to Maui. State tourism officials estimate the number of arrivals is down by at least ten percent but that’s only part of the story.

If you talk to those on the front lines in Maui’s travel industry, there’s more to the crisis than the dwindling number of arriving tourists. It seems those who are traveling to Maui are spending less.

My recent visit to Maui coincided with what is normally the onset of the busy holiday travel season but you couldn’t tell by walking down Front Street, Lahaina’s main tourist drag along the harbor. Except for one day when a cruise ship pulled in, it was eerily quiet.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Tahar Baccar as he shook his head behind the counter of his small coffee shop on Front Street. “It’s even worse than it was after 9/11. If things don’t improve quickly I will be out of business in six months." 

Baccar isn’t alone. At least two empty stores along Front Street displayed “For Lease” signs with several others available along the adjoining and intersecting side streets. An outdoor mall – one of Maui’s oldest – sits nearly empty a few blocks from the harbor.

At the airport’s Avis car rental counter, the manager said his business is down “at least 25 percent.” On Saturday night, we walked in to one of Maui's premier restaurants, Roy’s in Kahana, at about 7pm for dinner. The dining room was virtually empty. “To say business is down 30 percent would be conservative,” commented our waiter. 

At the other end of the spectrum there is somewhat of a silver lining. No, make that a golden lining. “The high end of the art business is sizzling,” said a sales clerk at the posh Martin Lawrence gallery in Lahaina.

“While business overall is down,” he explained as he pointed to a Chagall valued at $1-million, “those who can afford it are putting their dollars into what they consider a safe place in today’s environment.”

But, that is the rare exception to the overall feeling of economic gloom. According to the Maui Weekly, “Maui hotel room occupancy stats fell again according to its mid-October week totals—more than in any other part of the state. For the week ending Oct. 18, Maui hotels were 65.6 percent full—down 11.6 percent from the same week last year. Statewide, the occupancy rate dropped 1.3 percentage points to 71 percent occupancy.”

So what does this mean to your Joe and Jane average tourist? Well, if you can afford to take a vacation this holiday season, Maui isn’t a bad choice. Not only will you avoid the usual holiday-season crowds, you’ll find plenty of bargains, especially for the ever-popular tourist “tchotchkies” like jewelry, t-shirts, hats and any other memento you can think of. Virtually every store in Lahaina has some kind of sale or special deal to offer but that is relative.

Pretty much everything in Hawaii is more expensive than on the mainland. Gas was $3.45 a gallon but dropped a nickel over our six day visit. Food was by far our biggest expense with meals ranging from about $20 per person for lunch to $50-60 per person for dinner, including drinks. Of course, you can go the condo route and cook many of your own meals but, when I go on vacation, I prefer someone else do the cooking.

No matter what your budget, though, the sunshine is free and plentiful. Don’t forget the sunscreen.