Maui Residents to Visitors: Come, but With Care and Respect

Following catastrophic wildfires that leveled the western Maui town of Lāhainā, the island’s residents grapple with the slow return of tourism.

the back of a person in a burgundy hoody with a flower on it looking out across the ocean with a faint rainbow in the distance

When visitors do come, locals ask that they be mindful of the trauma and devastation the island has been through since early August.

Courtesy of Unsplash

This week, Maui mayor Richard Bissen announced the next phase of the reopening of West Maui to tourism following horrific wildfires that blazed through areas of the islands of Hawai‘i and Maui in early August, completely leveling the town of Lāhainā in western Maui. On November 1, the areas of West Maui north of Lāhainā, from Kahana to Kā‘anapali, will reopen, as officials and residents focus on recovery and rebuilding efforts, including a campaign to encourage travelers to return to Maui, albeit respectfully and with compassion. The phased reopening of West Maui began on October 8.

“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 stand-up paddleboard 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. A donation center was established in the community where people could pick up bottled water, in addition to supplies and food.

In the first 10 days or so following the wildfires, Lara’s business was essentially put on pause. “I just didn’t have the headspace to deal with it,” he says. But, he adds, “We’re back [in business] now.”

A map that indicates the reopening progress in West Maui

Hawai‘i tourism officials have released a map that indicates the reopening progress in West Maui.

Courtesy of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority

The losses due to the wildfires in Maui were staggering. Authorities reported that 97 people died, more than 6,600 acres burned, and approximately 2,403 residences were destroyed.

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 remained open 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—the vast majority of Maui—and the area around Lāhainā that had been closed.)

And many people did cancel their trips. Prior to August 8, Maui’s domestic passenger count ranged from between 4,000 and more than 8,000 visitors each day. In the weeks following the wildfires, they dipped down to between 1,800 and 3,000 daily and have finally climbed back up to above 4,000 daily visitors on most days, according to data provided by Hawai‘i’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.

Graph showing drop in number of domestic passengers flying to Maui since the wildfires

The number of domestic passengers flying to Maui has dropped drastically since the wildfires.

Courtesy of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism

It’s estimated that the current economic loss is as much as $9 million per day due to the drop in travelers, according to the Department of Business, Economic Development & 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, ‘Maui is open. Please come.’ ”

In September, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority approved a $2.6 million recovery plan to restore demand for travel to Maui, which includes a new Mālama Maui campaign that promotes a responsible return in tourism to Maui.

“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 OK 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 OK to come.”

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 (see below), Alejo-Fishell says that conscious travelers should also be aware of how severe the trauma that many residents have experienced has been.

Aerial view of a pool and palm trees at a Maui beach resort

Now, more than ever, residents are asking visitors to shop and buy local when they visit Maui to help support small businesses and their families.

Courtesy of Lo Sarno/Unsplash

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 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 . . . [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.”

Charred cars and buildings line the waterfront in western Maui town of Lāhainā, destroyed by wildfires in early August 2023

The road to recovery and eventually rebuilding will be a long one for the western Maui town of Lāhainā.

Courtesy of the Office of Hawai‘i Governor Josh Green

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:

The Red Cross is providing assistance to thousands of displaced residents in Maui and Oahu.

Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement

To donate:

This nonprofit organization that supports Native Hawaiians is raising support “for ‘ohana impacted by the devastating wildfires on Maui.”

Maui Food Bank

To donate:

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:

The Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses 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

To donate:

Community aid organization Maui United Way has created a Maui Fire Disaster Relief Fund that will assist victims of the fires.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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