Is it possible for Maui to attract tourists without exacerbating the trauma caused by wildfires?
LAHAINA, Hawaii —
Katie Austin’s place of employment, a restaurant in Lahaina, was destroyed in the summer’s wildfire disaster.
After a period of two months, tourists started returning to the beach resorts nearby. The woman then started working at a different restaurant. However, she eventually resigned due to the constant inquiries from customers about the impact of the fire and if she personally knew anyone who passed away.
Austin described a scenario where for eight hours at work, every 15 minutes a different stranger would approach and inquire about the most traumatic day of his life. He expressed that this experience was emotionally draining.
The governor and mayor of Hawaii extended an invitation to visitors to return to the west side of Maui, despite the devastating effects of the August 8 fire which claimed the lives of over 100 individuals and demolished over 2,000 structures. Their primary goal was to stimulate the economy with the influx of tourists, particularly during the upcoming holiday season.
However, certain individuals are facing challenges with the resurgence of a field that demands employees to be alert and welcoming, even as they cope with personal losses of loved ones, friends, homes, and their community.
Maui is a sizable island, with various areas such as the luxurious resorts in Wailea located 48 kilometers south of Lahaina. These locations, including the one used for filming the first season of the popular HBO show The White Lotus, are enthusiastically open to tourists and their spending.
The situation in west Maui is more complex. Lahaina remains a chaotic scene of burned debris. The process of removing hazardous waste is progressing slowly and with great attention to detail. Only residents are allowed access to the area.
There is increasing frustration regarding the inadequate availability of affordable long-term housing for individuals displaced by wildfires, particularly those employed in the tourism industry. Numerous individuals have taken to camping on Kaanapali, a popular beach destination a few miles north of Lahaina, in protest. In addition, last week, a large group marched between two major hotels, displaying signs with messages such as “We require housing immediately!” and “Short-term rentals must be eliminated!”
Hotels at Kaanapali are still housing about 6,000 fire evacuees unable to find long-term shelter in Maui’s tight and expensive housing market. But some have started to bring back tourists, and owners of timeshare condos have returned. At a shopping mall, visitors stroll past shops and dine at open-air oceanfront restaurants.
After the fire, Austin found employment at a restaurant in Kaanapali. However, she only stayed for five weeks before quitting. She explained that it was difficult to serve mai tais to hotel and vacation rental guests while her friends had to leave the island due to a lack of housing.
Employees in the tourism field, such as servers, often rely on tips for their income. This can create a challenging situation when customers ask them uncomfortable questions. Despite a sign being posted in Austin’s restaurant requesting customers to respect employee privacy, the inquiries persisted.
She stated, “I don’t want to discuss it with anyone who is not a therapist.”
Austin’s current goal is to join a nonprofit organization that supports housing advocacy.
Erin Kelley was not directly affected by the fire and did not lose her home or workplace. However, she was laid off from her job as a bartender at Sheraton Maui Resort. Although the hotel has since reopened to visitors in late December, Kelley does not anticipate being called back to work until business improves.
She expressed conflicting emotions. According to her, workers need housing before west Maui can welcome tourists, but the community relies heavily on the tourism industry and many would be unemployed without visitors.
She expressed feeling sorrow for her friends and understanding towards their circumstances. However, financial stability is also important.
Kelley stated that upon returning to work, she will not be interested in discussing the events of the previous months.
As climate change intensifies natural disasters, an increasing number of travel destinations will face the challenge of managing these situations.
According to Chekitan Dev, a professor of tourism at Cornell University, there is no guide for this task. Businesses will need to incorporate disaster management, both natural and man-made, into their strategic planning.
According to Andreas Neef, a professor of development and tourism at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a potential solution could be to encourage structured “voluntourism”. Rather than engaging in leisure activities, tourists could instead visit a section of west Maui that was not affected by the fire and participate in efforts to aid the local community.
Currently, it seems unrealistic to bring tourists for relaxation purposes, according to Neef. He cannot imagine being able to relax in a location that is still affected by the overall trauma it has experienced.
Lisa Paulson, the executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, stated that numerous travelers have been canceling their planned trips to Maui as a sign of respect. The latest state data shows that visitation has decreased by approximately 20% compared to December of 2022.
Hotels across the island, not only in west Maui, are experiencing cancellations.
Paulson believes that part of the issue is due to mixed signals in both mainstream and social media regarding the advisability of traveling to the island. She also notes that there is a lack of understanding among many individuals about the layout of the island and the fact that there are alternative locations to visit beyond just west Maui.
Amory Mowrey, the executive director of Maui Recovery, a residential treatment center for mental health and substance abuse, suggests that visitors can support by keeping in mind that they are traveling to a location that has recently been through a significant traumatic event.
He questioned whether his actions were driven by compassion and empathy or if he was only focused on taking for himself.
Jordan and Carter Prechel, a couple on their honeymoon, chose to follow this approach. They maintained their reservations in Kihei, located around 40 kilometers south of Lahaina, and made a promise to be considerate and to show support for the local establishments.
“Be mindful of their experience,” Jordan advised as she snacked with her husband in Kaanapali. “Avoid bombarding them with too many questions.”