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Friday,  April 12, 2024 8:24 PM 

On Location: After the fire – tourism in Maui resumes, one sunset at a time

On Location: After the fire – tourism in Maui resumes, one sunset at a time
PAX unpacks tourism on the Hawaiian island of Maui. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The sky is ablaze with vibrant tones of electric oranges as the sun, like a golden nugget, melts into the horizon, casting rays of glowing embers across a thick sheet of cottony clouds.

Sunset at the summit of Haleakalā National Park, the site of a dormant volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui, is an event of gloriously-epic proportions.

The park itself, with panoramic crater and valley views, spans 33,265 soaring acres, and in addition to myriad hiking trails, there are designated areas for skywatching on a rugged, Mars-like outlook of basalt rock.

Here, when conditions are favourable, sunsets (and sunrises) are an out-of-this-world experience – and not just due to the light-headedness that occurs when oxygen thins at high elevations.

Spectators gather for sunset at the summit of Haleakalā National Park in Maui. (Pax Global Media)

For a fleeting moment, visitors get a front-row seat to Earth's tranquil rotation, 3,055 meters above sea level, with the sun as a headlining act.

It’s a sky-high show nothing short of awe-inspiring.  

There’s a reason why Haleakalā, in Hawaiian, means “House of the Sun,” and the summit is rooted in local mythology. As the story goes, the god Maui once climbed the mountain and lassoed the sun's rays to lengthen the day.

Today, Haleakalā, which takes up 75 per cent of Maui, Hawaii’s second-largest island, is a popular attraction that’s climbed by many tourists, by foot and by car.

And it’s a commitment. Even with wheels, it takes more than an hour to reach the summit, depending on where you start from, and the winding (but well maintained) road, Hawaii State Road 378, can churn even the strongest of stomachs.

Sunset at Haleakalā National Park is in out-of-this-world experience. (Pax Global Media)

It’s an unforgettable route, though. A highway to the sky, where the worries of the world are left at the base of the volcano.

The sun is gone. An afterglow of indigo deepens the mood as twilight transforms the sky once again.

Tourists wearing pants and sweaters (it’s cold at the top) gather their blankets and chairs and start their cars.

The collective decent from Haleakalā summit begins.

Tragedy in Lahaina

Sunset at Haleakalā may be the epitome of heaven, but on the ground down below, on Maui’s western edge, it’s been hell on earth.

At least since Aug. 8, when a raging wildfire – said to have been caused by fallen power lines – tore through the historic town of Lahaina, scorching a combined 26.9 square kilometres. 

READ MORE: On Location - post-fire Maui is safe to visit, says Hawai’i tourism. But are locals ready? 

The tragic event was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, destroying more than 2,000 homes, hotels and businesses, while leaving nearly 100 dead, some 30 people missing, and displacing thousands.

A hilltop in Lahaina. (Pax Global Media)

As PAX observed during a visit to West Maui in early October, once-vibrant Lahaina, which is located on Maui’s arid northwest coast, has sadly been reduced to rubble, ash and singed cars.

It’s now a blocked-off town that will take several years to redevelop, as Daniel Nāhoʻopiʻi, interim president and CEO of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority (HTA), told us.

Tourism reopens

In recent weeks, however, efforts have been underway to reopen tourism in the communities near Lahaina, where the fire didn’t spread, and where resorts, in recent months, have been housing survivors.

The phased reopening began Oct. 8, starting with properties in Nāpili, Kāʻanapali, Honokōwai and Kapalua, and on Nov. 1, all of West Maui reopened for tourism (with exception to Lahaina, of course).

Hawai’i’s promise, during this process, is that housing for fire survivors will not be in jeopardy as tourists return to the hotels.

READ MORE: West Maui reopens to tourism, continues post-fire recovery

The state and the Red Cross have assured the public that solutions (such as timeshares and rental properties) are being looked at.

Whalers Village in Kāʻanapali. (Pax Global Media)

Some hotels, like Royal Lahaina and Kaanapali Beach resorts, have even agreed to host displaced residents (and relief workers) for the long-term.

But the restart in this idyllic destination – known for its waterfalls, lush ʻĪao Valley, views of humpback whales during the winter months and farm-to-table cuisine – hasn’t been without controversary.

As PAX has previously reported, some locals are still grieving and face stressors, such as determining where they’re going to live after losing their home.

It’s a sensitive subject that has divided the community – some advocates have said it’s too soon to reopen tourism in West Maui (the rest of Maui, to be clear, has been open for several months now).

Beachside in Kāʻanapali, which has reopened to tourists. (Pax Global Media)

For one, there’s a worry that ignorant tourists will turn levelled Lahaina into a spectacle.

While the town is off limits, the burn zone can still be seen from a highway that runs through the area (and as sad as it is, disaster tourism is a thing).

There’s also a concern about the wellbeing of hospitality workers – some 1,000 out of 2,700 hotel workers in West Maui were directly impacted by the Lahaina fires.  

High anxiety

At a panel discussion at the 2023 Hawai’i Tourism Conference in Honolulu on Oct. 2Kahulu De Santosdirector of ʻImipoʻokela at the Outrigger Kāʻanapali Beach Resort, said there are workers in Maui who are anxious about tourism’s return. 

“They want to be able to operate as the professionals in hospitality that that are, but they are afraid that they will fall apart,” De Santos told conference delegates.

Calls for respectful tourism – such as the request for tourists to not ask locals about how bad the fire was, nor take pictures of the devastation zone – have so far led the narrative.

Panelists discuss West Maui's reopening at the Hawai’i Tourism Conference in Honolulu in October. (Pax Global Media)

The conduct and behaviour of vacationing guests in a place that’s coping with extreme loss hangs in the air.  

“The next month or two is going to be very, very hard,” local Tasha Pagdilao told us during our visit.  

Pagdilao is one of several firefighters who helped battle the blaze in Lahaina, where she was born and raised, on that frightening day.

She agrees that tourism is necessary to the local economy, but is weary about how tourists will behave as they return to a forever-changed destination.

“People need to be sensitive with their words,” Pagdilao explained. “We all know the fire happened. We were there, we witnessed it. It's not necessarily something people want to talk about right now.”

From left: June Pagdilao, sales director, Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau and his daughter Tasha, a local firefighter. (Pax Global Media)

“Don’t discount Maui”

Others, such as local operators, have different concerns as Maui seeks to recover.

Also speaking at the conference in Honolulu was Riley Coon, a captain and director of sustainable tourism at Trilogy Excursions, a local sailing and excursion company.

He warned against cheapening tourism for the sake of attracting visitors.

“Don’t discount Maui,” said Riley Coon, a captain and director of sustainable tourism at Trilogy Excursions (left). (Pax Global Media)

“Don’t discount Maui,” Coon cautioned. “Don’t attract the budget traveller…it’s going to be a big step backwards if we do that. It’s going to ripple through all the different chains of the hospitality sector.”

“I know ‘heads on beds’ is a big thing, but don’t forget the activity people rely on – gratuities. If you’re bringing in visitors where that’s not part of their culture, or they are there for the cheap trip…you are going to hurt a lot of your residents.”

Coon said the industry should target visitors “who are compassionate.”

“[Those] who maybe are more affluent and are willing to invest in the islands to have the experience that they deserve," he said. 

Tourism dips

It’s an urgent conversation on an island where 70 per cent of every dollar is directly or indirectly generated from tourism, according to the Maui Economic Development Tourism Board.

All eyes are on Maui’s tourism numbers, which, since the wildfire, have dropped significantly.

In September, arrivals declined 57.1 per cent compared to September 2022, with visitor spending also down by 52.6 per cent to $203.2 million, according to the latest stats.

Wailea Beach Resort's nearby beach. (Pax Global Media)

Even at Haleakalā summit, during that epic sunset, Lorenzo Campos, account director for Hawai‘i Tourism’s Canada Office, represented by VoX International, remarked: “It’s usually way busier than this.”

This winter will certainly help boost numbers, but Maui’s post-fire recovery is expected to be slow and steady.

Air lift to the island, since August, has already been scaled back.

Total domestic air seats to Maui are down 23 per cent in November and 21 per cent in December, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Direct flights from Canada to Maui have also been reduced. Air Canada’s service from Vancouver is now one flight daily through April 2024, while WestJet will operate twice-daily service from Vancouver through April 2024.

WestJet’s Maui flights from Edmonton and Calgary will see reduced frequencies, too.

In the sky, on the ground

It will take bums in seats to restore Maui’s connectivity to what it once was.

It's possible, however, that Maui’s sheer beauty – from its blissful beaches to its palm tree-covered hills to its blue-green coastline – will be enough to attract visitors. 

During our visit, PAX got a birds-eye view of Maui’s magic from a chopper operated by Maverick Helicopters, which takes guests on sky-high rides over mountains, deserts and rainforests, to a remote forest reserve, where ruby-coloured awapuhi (“soap plants”) and monkey-pod trees grow.

Taking in sky-high views of Maui with Maverick Helicopters. (Pax Global Media)

View of magical Maui from above. (Pax Global Media)

The dramatic cliffs and jungle-like landscapes are the same backgrounds seen in Jurassic Park (the film’s aerial footage was shot in Maui).

But tourism in greater Maui is returning. 

At oceanfront Wailea Beach Resort, a 547-room, residential-style hillside property 45 minutes from Lahaina, it was business as usual as sun-seekers hopped between two golden sand crescent beaches – on a flower-filled, 22-acre compound of old Banyan trees – and indulged in self-care, like time spent at the hotel’s Olakino Wellness Pool, an adults-only infinity edge saline pool, where on-the-spot massages and all-included refreshments are served.

Soaring views from the Olakino Wellness Pool at Wailea Beach Resort. (Pax Global Media) Sunset at Wailea Beach Resort. (Pax Global Media)

View from the waterslide tower at Wailea Beach Resort. (Pax Global Media)

Guests can also partake in active activities, like a traditional outrigger canoe tour down the property's sparkling coast, where curious sea turtles can be seen popping their heads up out of the water. 

Wailea Beach Resort (also home to Hawai’i’s longest waterslide) puts the “lux” in luxury, and during our stay, the property was nearly full.

Paddling a traditional outrigger canoe in Maui. (Supplied)

It’s local attractions that need a boost.

One highlight was visiting the Maui Ocean Centre in Wailuku. Here, guests can walk through an underwater tunnel, passing sharks, sea turtles, rays and colourful fish, and even come eye-to-eye with a humpback whale at an eye-popping 3D film experience.

Observing marine life at Maui Ocean Centre. (Pax Global Media)

The aquarium (which is also a great place to have a fresh, open-air, waterfront lunch, at Seascape restaurant) also supports local conservation projects, from marine life rescue operations to coral reef restoration.

While our visit was off-season, the aquarium, still, wasn't bustling with visitors as we explored its many fascinating exhibits.

The centre may be resilient, but marine life alone won't keep the lights on. It needs tourists.

Sea turtles swim the aquarium at Maui Ocean Centre. (Pax Global Media)

High spend + volunteering

Canada will play an important role in Maui’s recovery.

At that conference in Honolulu, Susan Webb, president and owner of VoX International, took to a stage to share her latest tourism data, noting that Canada, up until recently, was Hawai’i largest international market (it was just dethroned by Japan).

However: “Canada is still number one [in spend] so far this year,” Webb said at the time. 

That bodes well for attracting visitors that can improve Maui’s bottom line.  

From left: Lorenzo Camposa, account director, Hawai‘i Tourism Canada Office; Daniel Nāhoʻopiʻi, interim president & CEO, Hawai'i Tourism Authority; Susan Webb, president/owner, VoX International, which represents Hawai'i Tourism in Canada. (Pax Global Media)

Volunteer tourism is also “very important” to Canadians, Webb added, which aligns with the type of travellers Maui is trying to attract: compassionate people who don’t mind sparing a few hours during their vacation to help out.

Regenerative tourism – the idea of leaving a place in better condition than it was found – has been at the forefront of Maui’s rebound.

The HTA lists volunteer opportunities in Maui on its website here, and the need for help has never been greater, as PAX learned after spending a morning helping out at the Maui Relief Storage Facility, where donations for families displaced by the fire are sorted and packaged.

PAX's Managing Editor Michael Pihach (left) and travel writer and radio host Liz Fleming (right) visit the Maui Relief Storage Facility. (Supplied)

Don’t write Maui off

If anything, the ask, right now, is for tourists to not write Maui off.

Daniel Nāhoʻopiʻi at the Hawai'i Tourism Authority is reminding the world that the wildfires “did not destroy all of the infrastructure on Maui, nor the other islands.” 

The island’s target market, currently, are people who’ve been to Maui before, the interim CEO said. 

“We know they understand the situation and that they’ll be the most respectful,” he said.

In Hawaiian culture, the word “mālama” is used to describe the act of giving back while caring and protecting for the earth and each other.

With each passing sunset, that’s what Maui needs right now. More than ever. 

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