After Maui Wildfires, Travelers Ask: Would a Trip Help or Hurt?

In the throes of responding to the Maui wildfires that razed the celebrated town of Lahaina and claimed over 110 lives, Hawaii remains mostly open for tourism, despite the misgivings of both residents and tourists.

“Do not come to Maui,” Kate Ducheneau, a Lahaina resident, said in a TikTok video that has been viewed more than two million times since it was posted on Sunday. “Cancel your trip. Now.”

“It’s just kind of a gut-wrenching feeling to see other people enjoying parts of their life that we used to welcome,” she said, adding that her home was severely damaged by fire and her family evacuated with minutes to spare.

Last week’s tragedy has intensified long-simmering tension over the archipelago’s economic reliance on tourism, a dependency that sparked anti-tourism protests in recent years and brought the state to its knees during the pandemic. Many residents, particularly in Maui, are furious over the uncomfortable, contradictory scenario of visitors frolicking in the state’s lush forests or sunbathing on white-sand beaches while they grieve the immense loss of life, home and culture. Others believe that tourism, while particularly painful now, is vital.

“People forget real quick right now, how many local businesses shut down during Covid,” said Daniel Kalahiki, who operates a food truck in Wailuku on Maui, east of Lahaina. The island needs to heal and the disaster areas are far from recovered, he said, but the tourist-go-home messaging is irresponsible and harmful.

“No matter what, the rest of Maui has to keep going on,” said Mr. Kalahiki, 52. “The island has already been shot in the chest. Are you going to stab us in the heart also?”

The devastating loss of life, and these conflicting messages, are causing travelers to grapple over the propriety of visiting Maui, or anywhere in Hawaii, in the near future, prompting them to ask if their dollars would help or their presence would hamper recovery efforts.

“If we’re in a Vrbo, is that going to take away from a potential person who’s been displaced?” said Stephanie Crow, an Oklahoman traveling to Maui this fall for her wedding.

Official guidance from the Hawaiian government has shifted in past week, first discouraging travelers from visiting the entire island of Maui, and now, from West Maui for the rest of the month. Travel to the other islands, including tourist-draws Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island, remains unaffected.

State tourism groups say that travel is encouraged to support Hawaii’s recovery and to prevent it from plunging into a deeper crisis.

“Tourism is Hawaii’s major economic driver, and we don’t want to compound a horrific natural disaster of the fires with a secondary economic disaster,” said Ilihia Gionson, a spokesman for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Vital to the economy

For those in the tourism industry, the year was off to a promising start. Visitor spending through June was $10.78 billion, a 17 percent increase compared to the same period last year, according to Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. The pandemic’s woes were in the past.

But tension over growing tourist numbers was not. Hawaii has for decades been one of the top destinations for American and international visitors, and has struggled to balance tourism with residents’ demands to acknowledge and protect the islands’ traditional culture. Visitor-reliant countries like Jamaica, Thailand and Mexico navigate similar existential issues.

A year ago, John De Fries, the first Native Hawaiian to lead the Tourism Authority, told The New York Times that “local residents have a responsibility to host visitors in a way that is appropriate. Conversely, visitors have a responsibility to be aware that their destination is someone’s home, someone’s neighborhood, someone’s community.”

In the tourism agency’s most recent resident sentiment survey, issued in July, 67 percent of 1,960 respondents across four islands expressed “favorable” views of tourism in the state. But the same percentage agreed with the assertion: “This island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

In the immediate days after the fires, frustration over visitors in Maui erupted.

“People are preying on trauma,” wrote Kailee Soong, a spiritual mentor who lives on Maui in Waikapu, on a TikTok post.

Tourists are still in stores even though resources are limited, said Ms. Soong, 33, in the video. “They are in the way right now as people mourn the loss of their loved ones, of the places that burned down, of the history that was completely erased.”

“Maui is not the place to have your vacation right now,” said the Oahu-born actor Jason Momoa in an Instagram Story. He posted an infographic that read “stop traveling to Maui,” and included guidance on how to make donations. There was fierce outcry after a Maui-based snorkeling company conducted a charity tour after the wildfires, leading the company to issue an apology and suspend operations.

“To hear that people are snorkeling in the water that people have had traumatic experiences and have died in, it’s hard to justify the reasoning behind why that would be viewed as acceptable,” Ms. Ducheneau, 29, said.

She works in property management and at a Lahaina restaurant, and noted that her family’s income is wholly dependent on tourists. Still, she said, “I just don’t think it’s an appropriate time to welcome tourism back into our area.”

The industry supplies approximately 200,000 jobs across the islands, and last year, a little over 9 million visitors spent $19.29 billion, according to the Tourism Authority. About 3 million visitors went to Maui, where the “visitor industry” accounts for 80 percent of every dollar generated on the island, the Maui Economic Development Board said.

“Just like everybody, we need to work. We just got over Covid. Things are just starting to get better. To think that everything might shut down again,” said Reyna Ochoa, a 46-year-old who lives in Haiku in North Maui and works several jobs outside of the tourism industry. “ The islands need the tourism and the income to rebuild.”

In Wailuku, Mr. Kalahiki said that his food-truck sales have dropped by half. Streets usually “popping” with tourists have been empty, he said, and there have been days when his wife, who has a beach apparel store in town, hasn’t sold a single item.

Travelers search for clarity

Then there are the travelers who have saved up for their first vacations in years, many with plans to reunite with family or to celebrate weddings and honeymoons. Many want to be respectful and are searching for clarity on what that looks like, deluging online forums to ask local residents where and when it is acceptable to visit.

Early next month, Danett Williams, 48, will spend her honeymoon on the Big Island, where fires burned in North and South Kohala.

For days, she and her fiancé went back and forth about canceling their trip, considering a road trip from their home in San Francisco instead. Ultimately, they decided their tourism dollars were helpful, as long as they stayed clear of other islands and did not take up necessary space or resources away from displaced residents, she said.

Others, like Ms. Crow, from Oklahoma, say that vendors like her wedding planner are asking her to keep their trip. In early September, Ms. Crow, 47, and her fiancé plan to get married on a beach in Kihei, about 20 miles south of Lahaina. It was supposed to be a wedding in a “happy, blissful paradise” setting, she said.

“These are first-world problems I’m dealing with. They’ve lost life, homes, income, they’ve lost everything,” Ms. Crow said.

Determining what to do has been overwhelming and conflicting, she added. And the shifting directives from officials were perplexing, she said.

‘We just need some time’

Marilyn Clark, a travel agent who specializes in trips to Hawaii, said the travel industry was in a “holding pattern” waiting for further government guidance.

Major hotels across Maui have relaxed their cancellation policies through the end of August, she said, but what hotels and vendors will offer beyond that is unclear, compounding the anxiety and confusion among travelers.

And travelers like Ms. Crow are unsure whether their presence will take away from the people who need shelter. In Lahaina alone, one official said that as many as 6,000 people may have lost their homes.

Some hotel operators say that they are offering rooms and other support to emergency responders, displaced residents and hotel staff. The state has secured 1,000 hotel rooms, most of which are north of Lahaina, in Kaanapali, said Kekoa McClellan, a spokesman for the Hawaii Hotel Alliance.

Joe Pluta, a West Maui community leader and real estate broker, is among the homeless. He is staying with his daughter after escaping the flames that destroyed his home and all his possessions.

Describing himself as a “top fan of tourism,” he however suggested that there were other ways to support Maui. The horror and grief is too raw, he said.

“This is not the proper time to come and play,” said Mr. Pluta, 74. “Come again, just give us some time. We just need some time.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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