Reopening of Lahaina prompts discussion on role of government

Maintaining restrictions on tourism to West Maui might have triggered legal challenges because of everyone’s right to travel

Hawaii’s love-hate relationship with tourism was brought into sharp focus following the devastating Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfires that killed almost a hundred residents and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen blocked most visitors to the area almost immediately after the fires. But as Bissen’s phased reopening in early October neared, more than 14,000 individuals signed a petition urging that tourists continue to be kept out, to allow residents of the area more time to grieve.

On the Oct. 20 episode of “Talking Tax” on ThinkTech Hawaii, co-hosts Tom Yamachika and Mark Coleman explored whether the government has the authority to impose such restrictions — and whether it should.

Yamachika, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii and a Grassroot Scholar, noted that maintaining tourism restrictions could have prompted legal challenges.

“There’s only so much the government can do,” he said. “Restricting travel is something that our U.S. Supreme Court has already said violates the constitutional rights of people.”

Yamachika said one of the things the travel ban had in its favor initially was that it “didn’t apply to just tourists. It applied to everybody [because] there were concerns about health and safety, like the toxic substances and ash. … [So] if the state says ‘Nobody is allowed to go here because of danger or whatever reason,’ [and] they keep everybody away from a certain area, that’s fine. But if they only keep tourists away, that’s not fine.”

Yamachika also highlighted the “moral debate” of one group of people trying to tell others in the area that, ‘Look, you can’t do that. You can’t conduct business because the rest of us haven’t healed yet. So, we’re going to kind of lock you up until the rest of us are ready.’”

Coleman, director of communications for the Grassroot Institute, said he understands the reluctance to reopen the community to visitors, but stressed that tourism will help Lahaina recover.

He said respecting private property and the individual right to self-determination should be the “guiding factor” in navigating the clashing preferences about reopening the area.

If you would like to view the full episode, click on the video below. If you would like to read Yamachika’s recent column on the topic, “Tourists, Keep Out!”, go here.

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