“It is safe to visit Maui,” said Daniel Nāhoʻopiʻi, interim president and CEO of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority (HTA). “Our residents are looking forward to hosting [visitors] because it ensures they have their livelihoods, jobs and businesses sustained.”
That was one of many takeaways last week at the 2023 Hawai’i Tourism Conference, where representatives from all facets of the island state’s travel industry convened on Oct. 2 to discuss strategic plans for the future.
While the day-long event at the Hawai‘i Convention Centre in Honolulu covered many topics, from air and cruise updates to the latest statistics from Hawai'i’s source markets, the main focus was on Hawai‘i’s second-largest island, Maui, which endured devastating wildfires two months ago, and the HTA’s plans for regenerative tourism.
The wind-driven flames that whipped arid West Maui in early August, resulting in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, caused widespread damage, destroying more than 2,000 homes, hotels and businesses.
The horrific event – which some experts say was caused by active power lines that had fallen – left nearly 100 dead, some 30 people missing, and displaced thousands.
As well, in the aftermath of the incident, tens of thousands of tourists evacuated the island, while social media messaging soon told the world “to not travel to Maui” so resources could be used locally.
The historic town of Lahaina, where residents had to make harrowing escapes to survive, was hit particularly hard by the disaster.
The touristic community of 15 square kilometres along the northwest coast of Maui suffered catastrophic loss.
As PAX observed while passing through the region last week, the once-vibrant town – also once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom – is now blocked off, and unrecognizable.
Cleanup of the debris – destruction marked by rubble, ash and singed cars – has barely begun, and currently, only residents are being allowed into Lahaina to retrieve whatever is left.
The still-hazardous environment requires hazmat suits and masks.
Lahaina, sadly, is nothing short of a war zone – save for small signs of life, such as a 150-year-old banyan tree that, just recently, sprouted new leaves, signalling hope for locals who lost everything.
As one local told us in passing: “It’s our 9/11.”
What's the damage?
The West Maui areas affected by the fires, for one, accounts for 15 per cent of the state’s economy, Nāhoʻopiʻi told conference delegates, while economists say it amounts to $11-$13 million (USD) a day in lost revenue to the state.
Nāhoʻopiʻi noted that some 9,000 residents have been unemployed since the fires, while Jimmy Tokioka, director of the state’s department of business, economic development and tourism, revealed that some 8,000 survivors have been sheltering in hotels near Lahaina.
Work is now being done to find these survivors long-term housing solutions, Tokioka said.
“Can you imagine living in a hotel, for over a year, not having a kitchen?” Tokioka asked conference delegates. “That’s what we’re trying to do with survivors, who are employees of many of you in this room."
A phased reopening
Piled on top of this are efforts to restore Maui’s once-thriving tourism industry.
Idyllic Maui, known for its waterfalls, lush and sacred ʻĪao Valley, views of migrating humpback whales during winter months, farm-to-table cuisine and sunrise and sunset from Haleakalā, a sky-high shield volcano, has begun the process of welcoming tourists back.
Last Sunday (Oct. 8), a phased reopening – first announced by Hawaii Gov. Josh Green in September – of the beach communities near Lahaina began.
Areas of West Maui, such as Nāpili, Kāʻanapali, Honokōwai and Kapalua (which did not experience wildfires) are part of this reopening plan, which will be staggered.
The strategy mostly applies to hotels. Based on our visit to the region last week, visitors were already returning to dine at local restaurants, for example.
Phase I of the plan encompasses the northern Kapalua area from the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua to Kahana Villa.
Then, if that goes well, the area from Mahinahina to Maui Kaanapali Villas will open under Phase II.
Phase III includes the area from Royal Lahaina Resort to the Hyatt Regency (this is where most of the displaced residents are being sheltered, therefore it will be last to reopen).
It’s worth clarifying that the wildfires hit a very specific stretch in West Maui – this being Lahaina.
Tourism in other parts of the island (such as in Kihei and Wailea in the south and Hana in the east, for example) is open, and has been for some time.
Mixed messages in the aftermath of the fires may lead some tourists to believe that all of Maui is still closed, which is not true.
Lahaina, however, remains fully closed to the public until further notice “out of respect to the town’s residents,” the Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau says.
“Residents are not being kicked out"
The residents. Despite good intentions to relaunch tourism in West Maui, the decision comes with controversy as locals – some of whom have objected to tourism’s reopening – continue to grieve and face stressors, such as determining where they’re going to live.
Speaking with PAX, Hawai’i tourism’s interim CEO, for starters, “dispelled the myth” that survivors were being removed from hotels to make way for tourists.
“Residents are not being kicked out,” Nāhoʻopiʻi said, noting that the state and the Red Cross are looking for more permanent housing solutions on other parts of Maui in timeshares and rental properties.
Why long-term? “Because it will take years to redevelop Lahaina,” he said.
One effort that’s already in motion is consolidating survivors at select hotels, instead of spreading them out across many, Nāhoʻopiʻi said.
Two resorts in the area that have already extended their commitment to housing displaced residents (and relief workers) are the Royal Lahaina and Kaanapali Beach resorts, he said.
Hotels, Nāhoʻopiʻi pointed out, are getting compensated either way, as funds from the government and the Red Cross are supporting this housing initiative.
A community divided
But this doesn’t take away from the fact that many tourism workers lived in Lahaina.
As Jimmy Tokioka pointed out at the conference, some 1,000 out of 2,700 hotel workers in West Maui were directly impacted by the fires.
Tourism is a sensitive subject that now divides the West Maui community.
Last week, on the day of Hawai’i Tourism’s conference, Lahaina community advocates delivered a petition of some 14,000 signatures to local lawmakers, requesting that the reopening of Lahaina area hotels be delayed.
Later that day, PAX encountered some members of this contingent, a group called Lahaina Strong, at Honolulu International Airport, where they were boarding a flight back to Maui.
“Our Governor basically created a date out of thin air for West Maui to be reopened without consultation from the community,” Paele Kiakon of Lahaina Strong told PAX at the airport. “It feels very rushed. Two months is too soon.”
There are concerns on the ground, such as traffic congestion and supply issues at grocery stores, Kiakon explained.
There’s also a legitimate worry that returning tourists will turn the Lahaina burn site into a spectacle. (As sad as it is, disaster tourism is a real thing).
“Whenever I drive by an accident, the first thing I do is slow down and look at what’s going on,” Kiakon said. “So, imagine thousands of visitors coming in and doing the same thing, gawking at our devastation.”
(While Lahaina is closed and concealed by some fencing, signs of the devastation can still be seen from the main highway that runs through the region).
Local beaches, since the fire, have meanwhile become places of prayer, healing and grief, Kiakon explained.
The idea of loading them up with tourists, and taking that aspect away, is overwhelming for some.
“I’m not putting everybody in a box. I know people will come here with the purest intentions,” Kiakon said. “It’s just that when you’ve grown up in Maui, and you’ve seen every single type of person that can come through your place, you know that regardless of what you say or ask of people, you’re going to have people who don’t care. Those are the ones we are afraid of.”
Voices from all sides
Speaking on a panel discussion at Hawai’i Tourism’s conference, Maui resident Mike White, an HTA board member, addressed the controversy.
“The challenge that Maui faces is that the voices that you hear the loudest aren’t always representing the largest groups,” White said. “It’s very important that we look at Maui for what it is. It’s an amazing conglomeration of people from varied places, different cultures, different backgrounds, and different experiences and feelings with respect to the fire.”
Speaking later with PAX, White said that while many people are still grieving, the majority of people he has spoken to “are ready to get back to work and welcome people back.”
He also shed some light on what the demand in West Maui looks like right now.
“Talking with hotel operators, reservations are coming back, but it’s not like with COVID when the flood gates opened,” he said. “There’s a hesitancy to return because we [initially, in the immediate aftermath of the fire] made such as strong statement to stay away.”
Ready to move forward
Embedded in West Maui’s tourism hub lies an emphasis on individual solutions, as opposed to group solutions.
Some hospitality workers are ready to get back to work, while others are not.
“The trauma everyone's going through has hit our staff very hard. We’re still grieving,” shared Amber Compton, general manager of Hula Grill, a beachside eatery in Kāʻanapali, which is about a five-minute drive from the burn zone in Lahaina. “We're just trying to move forward with our lives and pick up the pieces.”
To that end, Compton implied that she, and her team, are ready to move forward.
Small businesses in West Maui – notably, locally-owned restaurants and attractions – need their tourism dollars back in order to survive.
“Taking the first step is the hardest part, and for me and a lot of my staff, we’ve taken that step. We’re now ready for the next step in the recovery process,” Compton told PAX.
The challenge for some workers, she said, is catering to relaxed tourists while coping with extreme loss at the same time.
“As people return, we’re asking visitors to be understanding of what we’re going through,” Compton said. “Everybody grieves differently.”
Calls for respectful tourism in Maui has been at the forefront of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority’s own messaging in recent weeks.
The organization is asking tourists to “visit with aloha and compassion,” reminding guests that their visit does, indeed, support Hawaiʻi’s businesses and workers that rely on tourism for their livelihood.
Locals, meanwhile, are asking tourists to conduct themselves in a respectful manner. This includes the request to not take selfies in front of devastation zones, nor ask tourism workers about the fire and how bad it was.
“We have to start with the fact that Hawaiʻi is an island home for many residents,” Nāhoʻopiʻi of the HTA told PAX. “If you're visiting your friends or family in their home, what would you do? You’d listen to their concerns and get a feeling of what's happening in their life.”
“That's a starting place [for tourists]. Hawaiʻi is a home first, and then a vacation destination.”
The interim CEO is calling for regenerative tourism – the idea of leaving a place better off than it was found.
“This can be through buying local, visiting a local establishment, or contributing time and effort to a cause,” Nāhoʻopiʻi said.
The HTA has listed volunteer opportunities throughout the islands on its website here.
PAX, during our visit, spent a morning in Kahului at the Maui Relief Storage Facility, a former Safeway grocery store about 40 minutes from the Lahaina burn site.
Here, some 300 families that were displaced by the fire continue to line up every other day to collect basic necessities, from clothing to toiletries to non-perishable food.
The operation takes a daily team of 25-30 relief workers and volunteers, who oversee the reception, sorting, and inventorying of donations.
We joined the crew one morning on a “restocking” day to help out. It’s one way that tourists in Maui can give back.
Nāhoʻopiʻi’s message to Canadian travel advisors is to explore the many options that are available on the island, and seek out clients who may have visited the island previously.
“The wildfires did not destroy all of the infrastructure on Maui, nor the other islands,” he said. “It's a great time to seek out local experiences that you didn't try the last time. There's lots to explore.”
“It's a slow and steady pace,” he said. “And we're hoping Canadians will turn towards Maui and help us.”
Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on-the-ground coverage from Maui.