Should you visit Maui right now? What locals want from tourists as the island rebuilds
Tourists were initially urged to stay away from the Hawaiian island of Maui in the immediate wake of a wildfire that killed at least 115 people and devastated the historic town of Lahaina.
But now, nearly three weeks after the catastrophic wildfire, officials and some locals are urging visitors to not cancel upcoming trips to other parts of the island, saying the tourism dollars are needed to keep locals employed.
“Maui update. South Maui resorts (Lahaina is West Maui) NEED visitors. Furloughs and layoffs starting because people think the whole island is closed. It is not,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii tweeted Thursday. “If you are planning a trip to Wailea or Kihei, don’t cancel. If you want to come to Hawaii pls consider South Maui.”
‘Āina Momona, a community organization that discouraged visitors from coming immediately after the fire, is now offering advice to tourists who do come to the island.
As Maui hotel rooms sit empty after the deadly Hawaii wildfire that devastated Lahaina, some are sounding economic alarms, asking tourists to return.
“If you decide to travel to Maui, behave with solace, empathy, compassion,” a recent Instagram slideshow urges. The “bottom line,” it says, is that people should “visit,” “spend” and “go home.”
Tourism has historically been a fraught subject in Hawaii and the recent fires have brought those tensions to the forefront.
But for those who do visit the island in the coming weeks and months, officials, community leaders and other locals offer some advice for being a respectful visitor and minimizing negative effects on the island:
Do not go to West Maui
The No. 1 message from community leaders and officials is that tourists should steer clear of Lahaina, which was ravaged by fire, and nearby towns such as Kaanapali and Kapalua, which are housing relief efforts and displaced fire survivors.
Don’t “rubberneck” around the affected communities, said Kainoa Horcajo, a cultural consultant and organizer with mutual aid organization Maui Rapid Response. “But the rest of the island is open and it needs support,” Horcajo added.
Jowel and Relyn Delfin have taken 13 relatives into their central Maui home.
Stories about tourists taking selfies in front of the destruction in the immediate aftermath of the fire compound the anger and frustration of people in the community who have already lost so much, said James Kunane Tokioka, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Tokioka reiterated the message that the rest of the island and state are open, but urged tourists to act with respect.
Popular South Maui towns such as Kihei and Wailea are far from the destruction, as is Paia on the North Shore.
Travelers are welcome in Kahului, Wailuku, Kihei, Wailea, Makena, Paia and Hana, as well as the neighboring Maui County islands of Lanai and Molokai, according to official state guidance.
Act with sensitivity and empathy
“Come with respect, humility and reverence for our Maui community, especially West Maui. There is a lot of cultural and emotional sensitivity at this time,” said Jeana Naluai, a Native Hawaiian who runs a spa in Maui’s Upcountry that specializes in traditional Hawaiian Lomi Lomi techniques. “The families are hurting and deserve your consideration and care.”
Trisha Kehaulani Watson, ‘Āina Momona’s co-founder, underscored the fact that many people tourists encounter — including hotel, restaurant and retail workers — may have a personal connection to the fires.
“We really need tourists to be patient and kind and compassionate and understand that people here are deeply traumatized and really beginning to cope with this,” said Kehaulani Watson, a natural and cultural resources management consultant.
Tourists should know that recovery remains the island’s priority and expect that some places could be short-staffed and some attractions may be closed, Kehaulani Watson said.
Gemma Alvior, a local designer who has a boutique at Maui Mall Village in Kahului, also urged visitors to “always remember to watch how you speak about your vacation because you don’t know who is listening. Everyone is emotional and hurt.”
Patronize small businesses and tip well
“Support the economy by shopping at local stores, restaurants, food trucks and shopping Hawaiian products,” said Naluai, who runs Ho’omana Spa. She suggested that tourists use the Kuhikuhi database to find Native Hawaiian-owned businesses or shop them virtually and take as many selfies as they want supporting local businesses in unaffected areas.
Many people are looking for jobs, and local businesses need to absorb the workforce until things rebuild, Naluai said. “Only thriving business can continue to offer opportunities. We all need to survive so we can continue to serve for the long haul towards restoration.”
Wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui have killed at least 36 people, displaced thousands of residents and destroyed hundreds of structures, including homes, businesses and a school, prompting President Biden to declare a “major disaster.”
Volunteer or donate
The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism urges visitors to check mauistrong.hawaii.gov for the latest Maui emergency management and recovery information, as well as information about how to help.
More than two weeks after the fires in Lahaina displaced thousands of residents and their pets, owners continue to search and hope for a reunion.
“They can also bring an extra luggage full of items that are needed here. Don’t come empty-handed,” Alvior said. (Needs have shifted relatively quickly over the last few weeks, so it’s best to connect with local groups beforehand or on social media.)
Kilakila Nunes, a Maui resident whose pool services business works with local resorts, suggested that travelers consider making “a small monetary donation to a credible agency if possible” while enjoying the rest of the island.
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