It’s been almost a month since horrific wildfires blazed through areas of the islands of Hawai‘i and Maui, completely leveling the town of Lāhainā in western Maui in what is now the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. As officials and residents focus on recovery and rebuilding efforts, a second crisis has taken hold.
“Here’s the reality, as much as people don’t like it, we are driven by the visitor industry,” says Tim Lara of Hawaiian Paddle Sports, a certified B-Corp in Maui that offers surf lessons, kayak tours, canoe tours, and standup paddle board lessons. “If all of a sudden everyone stops coming, which they did … it’s going to create a bigger economic collapse. And more people are going to need assistance. Whereas if the visitor industry keeps going, not only can we sustain ourselves, but we can help with relief on the west side. “
Lara lives in Kula in Maui’s Upcountry, which experienced wildfires as well—19 houses were lost in Kula, including 10 within a mile of Lara’s house. Lara and his neighbors spent the days after the fires working together to extinguish new hot spots, cut back green waste to create fire breaks, and clear trees that had fallen onto properties. As of press time, the water is still not safe to drink in Kula, so a donation center has been established in the community where people can pick up everything from cases of bottled water to five-gallon bottles of water, in addition to supplies and food. Hot food is being delivered two to three times each day for volunteers, for those hosting displaced families, and for the displaced families themselves.
“All of my employees are on reduced-hour unemployment right now,” says Lara, adding that the first 10 days or so following the wildfires, his business was essentially put on pause. “I just didn’t have the headspace to deal with it,” he says. “We’re back now.”
The losses due to the wildfires in Maui have been staggering. At least 115 people are dead, and more than 6,600 acres have burned. Approximately 2,403 residential units have been destroyed. And hotel shelters have been set up in 24 locations around Maui that are currently housing more than 5,800 people nightly.
In the initial hours following the August 8 fires, as blazes were still burning, as rescue efforts were still underway, and as losses were still mounting, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority issued a statement that “non-essential travel to Maui is strongly discouraged at this time. Visitors who have travel plans to West Maui in the coming weeks are encouraged to consider rescheduling their travel plans for a later time.” Unfortunately, the distinction between West Maui, where Lāhainā is located, and the rest of Maui, which remains opens to visitors, got lost in the chaos and communication efforts.
Several celebrities jumped in to reinforce that message, including Hawaiian-born actor Jason Momoa, who has 17.2 million followers on Instagram, and posted to the platform on August 11, “Do not travel to Maui … if you were planning on traveling to Maui in the near future, cancel your trip.” (He has since posted numerous updates, including detailed clarifications about what remains open now—which is the vast majority of Maui—and the area of Maui around Lāhainā that is closed.)
And cancel they did. Prior to August 8, Maui’s domestic passenger count ranged from between 4,000 and more than 8,000 visitors each day. Following the wildfires, they have dipped to between 1,800 and 3,000 daily, according to data provided by Hawai‘i’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.
Four weeks later, it’s estimated that the current economic loss is approximately $9 million per day due to the drop in travelers, according to the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism.
“There was a lot of talk in the beginning that ‘Maui is closed. Visitors need to leave. Don’t come to Maui,’ ” says Lara, adding that more recently, there’s been a welcome adjustment in the communication. “Now people are saying, ‘West Maui is closed. Maui is open. Please come.’ ”
On August 18, Hawai‘i governor Josh Green stated that there is now a tourism emergency in Maui. Last week, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority approved a $2.6 million recovery plan to restore demand for travel to Maui. The agency has launched a Mālama Maui campaign that will continue through October 31, 2023.
“After listening to the Maui community and visitor industry, the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority is supporting residents who work in the hospitality industry and business owners who count on visitor spending by ensuring that visitors return to Maui,” Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer at Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, tells AFAR. “We are asking for respectful, compassionate, responsible travel to the island at this time. Visitation is welcome and encouraged to the many open areas of Maui, now more than ever.”
Is it okay to visit Maui now?
So, what does “respectful, compassionate, responsible” travel to Maui look like?
Britney Alejo-Fishell, owner of Haku Maui in Maui’s Upcountry, a small business that makes traditional Hawaiian leis and teaches lei-making workshops, says she wants to spread the message that “it’s okay to come. West Maui is closed but the rest of Maui remains open.”
But, she adds, “I know that people love to come to Maui to heal. You come here, and you find your healing in this beautiful place. But this is where people come from. We live here, this is what we’re made of. Come right, come respectfully. The people that come and just stay at the hotels, I get it, it’s helping the hotel. Come with the openness that you are going to travel and to explore and see what Maui has to offer and meet the people and talk to them and not just shelter in place.”
In addition to getting off the resort compound and supporting local businesses, reaching out to aid organizations that are contributing to relief efforts on Maui, and donating time and money to help, Alejo-Fishell says that conscious travelers should also be aware of just how severe the trauma has been that many residents have experienced.
Alejo-Fishell recalls that “the very first week, we were getting supplies, taking them directly to Lāhainā, and you can hear tourists complaining in the stores, saying ‘Why is there nothing on the shelves? What are we supposed to do?’ People have nothing, they just survived [this disaster], they may have lost their loved ones. Come on. Just be aware that you may be in line and there may be someone behind you in line that lost everything.“
Lesley Texeira, owner of Aloha Missions, which creates customized give-back experiences for people in Maui, says that following the wildfires, it has felt like the COVID-19 pandemic all over again in Maui with rental cars piling up on empty lots around the airport and a dearth of visitors.
The difference this time around is that Maui residents experienced something so sudden and so shocking—and they are, quite frankly, still processing it all.
“If you are coming here, which is how you should travel anyway–anywhere you go, with intent, [you should be] leaving our island better than you found it. That’s how you should do anything, but especially right now. We are so fragile, and we are so emotional that you have to come here and you have to be mindful,” says Texeira.
“The whole island is traumatized.”
Texeira says that for those visitors who want to reach out to local communities and volunteer or provide services and resources while they are in Maui, Aloha Missions can help make those connections between visitors and support efforts.
Says Lara of Hawaiian Paddle Sports, “Just by simply coming and spending money as you normally would, you are helping the situation because you’re stopping that many more families from needing assistance. But then—extra credit—make a charitable donation while you’re here.”
How to help Maui
For travelers wondering how they can help, several organizations have jumped in to provide aid and assistance.
American Red Cross
To donate: redcross.org
The Red Cross is providing assistance to thousands of displaced residents in Maui and Oahu, including providing temporary shelter, meals, and emotional support.
Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement
To donate: memberplanet.com
This nonprofit organization that supports Native Hawaiians is raising support “for ‘ohana impacted by the devastating wildfires on Maui.”
Maui Food Bank
To donate: mauifoodbank.org
The Maui Food Bank, which distributes food to the hungry in Maui County, is raising money to help feed residents of Maui who have been displaced by the fires.
Maui Strong Fund
To donate: hawaiicommunityfoundation.org
The Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses its efforts on creating an equitable and vibrant Hawai‘i, has developed the Maui Strong Fund to provide shelter, food, financial assistance, and other services to residents.
Maui United Way
Community aid organization Maui United Way has created a Maui Fire Disaster Relief Fund that will assist victims of the fires.