It’s been almost a month since Maui was ravaged by wildfires on August 8. According to Hawaii News Now, “the confirmed death toll remains at 115.” They also note that “residents are still not allowed to return to the disaster area in Lahaina. There will be a coordinated effort to develop a plan for the safe return of residents, with the disaster area restricted to authorized personnel only.”
The messaging coming out of the islands has been mixed. A few days after the tragedy, I wrote this article: Jason Momoa and Tourism Officials Tell Tourists to Stay Away From Maui: ‘Not the Place to Have Your Vacation Right Now’.
A week or two later, the messaging changed, and tourism officials began encouraging tourists to return. So I thought I was doing the right thing by helping to spread their message in this article: Maui Desperately Needs Visitors – Hawaiian Airlines Offering $82 Flights.
I wrote it after doing a lot of research for a CBS News interview I did in L.A. In the article, I referenced numerous news articles both national and local. I also spoke to Maui’s tourism board and interviewed a local business owner. They all said, “Yes, please tell people to visit Maui.”
On top of that, airfares dropped significantly, including last-minute flights. American and United were offering fares for just $197 roundtrip. That’s unheard of and I seriously contemplated taking my family over Labor Day. I just checked last minute fares again and they’ve risen $50 each way, which is still cheap. See screenshot below.
Since I wasn’t 100% sure if encouraging travel to Maui right now is the right thing to do, I asked my friends and colleagues on Facebook what they thought. Many of them are in the travel business, either as writers, public relations executives or travel experts. Their feelings, many of which reflected my own, were mixed. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“As a wildfire survivor in a tourist area I say no. There were some areas that were not affected so the tourism folks said “come”. It made things very difficult for those of us trying to sort things our after a major loss. We were all saying — stay home — but the tourism folks had the reach, which was unfortunate. And even when you have well meaning folks, they really get in the way and make things more difficult for survivors. There is a lot to sort out in the beginning, and if you haven’t been there I don’t think you can even begin to understand. In my case, it created a great rift between the tourism folks and the former homeowners, and that still exists today.” ~ Candy
“i think I’d agree with [Candy] on this one, especially seeing how many displaced locals are now forced to search even harder for temp lodgings because the condo accommodations want to welcome back tourists. I have seen some small businesses on Maui inviting tourists back, but the people pushing hardest work for tourism boards, big stakeholders, or related government departments. And…hasn’t the state’s legacy tourism entity been recently defunded and dissolved because locals were so unhappy with it? I would hesitate to trust messages coming from it.” ~ Lena
“They are still recovering and you know that people are going to head to Lahaina to gawk. If you’re not going to help the people, choose another spot to vacation, there are other Islands in Hawaii and the world to go. Most think that recovery is quick, it’s not. It’s six years since Hurricane Harvey in Houston and the recovery is not complete. They’re still searching for victims in Maui too. So, unless you’re going to help, chill for a while longer.” ~ Kerwin
“As a home owner on Sanibel island, which was hit by Hurricane Ian last year, I’d wait a while. At least six months. I found it very disrespectful when we were worried about our personal belongings and rebuilding and tourists were asking on forums “what is open?” “where can I stay?” etc.” ~ Chris
“I’ve lived on Maui over 20 years. People are getting laid off, restaurants are closing until mid September. It’s empty. We NEED tourists desperately.” ~ Wendy
“There’s definitely a way to go now, thoughtfully and respectfully!” ~ Gabe
“80 cents of every dollar earned on Maui is through tourism. Sad fact is: people will go hungry if folks don’t visit as that’s a far higher percentage than in other tourist destinations.” ~ Pauline
As you can see just from this small selection of comments, the feelings were mixed and both sides make valid points. My family did not go to Maui for multiple reasons:
1. I didn’t feel in my heart that it was the right time, even though all those in tourism say the opposite. I later received quite a few negative comments and even a phone call from someone who I believe was a local, which I will share more about shortly.
2. I wouldn’t feel comfortable having my kids frolicking in the water with so much devastation nearby and people hurting. I know the island’s recovery requires financial support but there are other ways to contribute financially that don’t involve vacationing in a place filled with so much pain.
3. My kids didn’t want to go away. They wanted to stay home and play with their toys and their friends.
4. My wife and I didn’t want our kids to get on a different time zone since they just started school. Going east is always best since when they come back home to California, they automatically wake up early. But when returning from Hawaii, they wake up two to three hours later than they normally do, which makes waking up for school too difficult.
5. It’s still expensive. Although airfare is super cheap, accommodations, car rentals and dining aren’t.
The story I wrote went viral thanks to Google featuring it in their app so I had a ton of comments, emails and even a phone call from a local. Here are some of the public comments I received:
“The rest of Maui also includes West Maui from Kaanapali and north. The road is OPEN. Gas stations, food stores, and others are open. My property in Napili-Honokowai has power, water, cell, and internet. Life there is almost normal except there are no people to spend money and support the people and business there. Yes, avoid Lahaina Town, but there is absolutely no reason that this area of West Maui cannot be enjoyed like the rest of Maui.” ~ Christian
“From a Maui resident…. Maui can’t afford another economic bust after we have really begun to see the financial light after COVID. While ‘the rest’ of Maui is open and needing tourists, they might have a hard time finding accommodations. The majority of displaced Lahaina residents are staying in hotels, condos and BnB’s on the island. And we have a lot of off-island aid workers here, as well. Only the restaurants in Lahaina were destroyed. Food is plentiful in restaurants in Kihei, Wailea and Paia. The rest of the island and beaches are still beautiful and welcoming.” ~ Michael
“For everyone who is trying to advertise, Molly and Shannon get people to come visit our island. Please understand that we just had a fire up there and a lot of people lost their families their pets they lost everything. How would you like it if your house burnt down and we went to go visit you because you guys don’t know how to respect Arina, we don’t want visitors we don’t need visitors. We need our island and our people to heal from all of this. What don’t you guys understand and stop advertising us as if we need your help we don’t we just want to be left alone and if you can’t understand what are Hawaiian people and our island is going through then maybe you should educate yourself and realize that you guys are not welcome to Maui you guys are already disrespecting the point that people died in that water where people are snorkeling and laughing and surfing so please stop advertising us as if we need you guys we don’t want you guys and if you guys don’t understand that, educate yourself and leave us alone.” ~ K.
I’m pretty sure K. was the person who called me because the woman on the phone said almost exactly what is posted above and when I began to speak, she hung up on me. I was about to call or text her back when my level-headed wife stopped me. My wife said, “If she wanted to hear what you have to say, she wouldn’t have hung up. She needed you to hear what SHE has to say. Leave her be and let her grieve in peace. We cannot begin to imagine the hurt and pain the people of Maui are feeling right now.”
Her phone call really hit me hard because the last thing I want to do is cause more harm or stress. I thought I was helping to spread the message that Maui needs tourists to return to help with recovery efforts. I tried to find a native Hawaiian person (they make up 10.4% of Maui’s population) to interview about whether they want tourists or not but my Maui industry friends couldn’t find anyone willing to do it. I was told that some locals said they agree that the island needs tourists but no one was comfortable going on camera to say so.
So, I agree with a reader named Jona who said, “I think there needs to be a formal invitation to visit from Hawaiian officials to mainlanders. Make it definite, specific, and welcoming. That way, everyone understands and there’s a better chance less animosity.”
Most travelers don’t want to go to a place, let alone an island, where they’re not welcome. I’m one of them. I’ve been to Maui dozens of times and I’ve always felt welcome but I’m not sure that would be the case right now.
When I travel, I respect local culture and always pick up after myself and others. One of my top travel tips, something I’ve been doing and writing about for years and something I constantly tell my kids, is to always pick up at least three pieces of trash from the beach or the woods so you can make it cleaner than it was before you got there. I’m a huge proponent of this wise statement: “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens this week as Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) just resumed their Hawaii cruise port calls in Maui again on September 3. According to Travelmole, “NCL’s Pride of America, which specializes in Hawaii cruising, will call at Kahului, Maui starting on September 3. Cruise lines had paused calls following the devastating fire in Laihana. “We have a strong connection with the people and islands of Hawaii,” said David J. Herrera, NCL president.”
Rolling Stone magazine wrote a piece today with the title, Steven Tyler Urges Tourists to Return to Maui After Devastating Fire. Tyler has a house in Wailea and, according to the Associated Press, he said during a concert in Philadelphia over the weekend, “When you think about Lahaina, think about south Maui.” He suggested alternative resort communities, noting, “Paia and Hana: it’s still there. It’s a place to go and do the, you know, the love thing. It’s still open, it’s still happening.” He added, “Everything’s beautiful, except you gotta come there and make it more beautiful, okay?”
He’s right and so are the others who say Maui needs tourism. According to Maui Now, a local news provider, “A resident called Maui’s renowned Mama’s Fish House on a Wednesday and got a reservation for Friday, at an oceanside table. Karen Christenson, daughter of the founders, said the restaurant usually books up to three months in advance, but since the fire it has lost about 50% of its reservations. This has forced her to put staff on part-time schedules in order to keep the doors open. And, she added: “The other day, for the first time, I had to turn down a fisherman with a fresh catch. It was heartbreaking for me.” The loss of visitors hurts many parts of Maui’s economy, including the hotels, tour companies, stores and cleaning businesses — and all the people who work at them, and all their families who survive on these incomes. Businesses are closing. People are being laid off. Even Costco in Kahului has less traffic than usual. It’s the trickle down effect.”
The New York Times also just wrote a piece titled “Tourists Were Told to Avoid Maui. Many Workers Want Them Back.” In the story, the Times interviewed Nick Rodriguez, the general manager of Maui’s Flatbread Company pizzeria, who said that in “just a few weeks, he had gone from “begging for people to come work for us” to having to turn people away. State data shows that more than 5,300 people on Maui filed initial unemployment claims in roughly the first two weeks after the fire. In normal weeks, the number of claims is closer to 120.”
The New York Times also interviewed Chris West, president of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which also represents workers in the tourism and pineapple industries. He said that “he and other Native Hawaiians have complicated feelings about tourists, but that their return was needed to sustain the economy.” Mr. West might have the best advice, “So visit, but be respectful, and we can coexist.”
I don’t have a definitive answer about whether you should go to Maui now or not. But if you do go, just stay away from West Maui (including Lahaina, Nāpili, Kāʻanapali, and Kapalua) and be sure to support local businesses. Hawaiian travel officials have asked travelers to “respect the west but visit the rest.”
One way to support Maui’s recovery efforts without visiting the island is through donations. Immediately following the wildfires, my wife gathered supplies like clothing, blankets and bed sheets to donate to the Maui relief fund but it’s important to know what they need and when. According to Hawaii News Now, Maui residents no longer need clothing but here’s what they do need. And if you’re planning to make a financial donation, do your research to find an organization that’s trustworthy like the Hawaii Community Foundation. Find other Maui recovery resources here.
–How to Be a Responsible Traveler to Maui Nui
–Maui Desperately Needs Visitors – Hawaiian Airlines Offering $82 Flights
–Maui Resident Shares How to Help and Whether Visitors Should Travel to Maui After the Wildfires
–Maui Wildfires: Advice for Travelers and How to Help