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Should travellers return to Maui following the catastrophic wildfires? Yes.
If you’re a Hawai'i lover and you’re wondering if it’s the right time to stay in your favourite Maui hotel, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority has an emphatic answer for you.
Your STAY Magazine correspondent caught up with Kalani Ka’ana’ana, the authority’s chief brand officer, for an exclusive update on Maui tourism as he was boarding a plane earlier this week.
There have been suggestions in some quarters that it’s too early to return to the island, which saw the town of Lahaina burned to cinders earlier this month. At least 115 people are confirmed dead, and the missing persons count could be as high as 1,100.
“I know it’s a sensitive topic, but I spent the last our days on the island,” Ka’ana’ana said in a telephone interview. “First and foremost, if you’re unable to travel to Maui at this time consider donating to the Hawai’i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund. There’s also a campaign being organized by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement called Kako’o (Support) Maui.”
“I think another (way to help) is really responsible, compassionate visitation right now. The rest of Maui (outside of Lahaina and the West Maui tourism spots from Ka’anapali north to Kahana, Napili and Kapalua) is completely safe. It’s open and eager to host guests again.
“We’ve seen visitors heed the call (to stay away) in the earliest days of the emergency,” he said. “The problem is that our visitors have heeded that call, but now it’s having an economic impact on the rest of the island.”
Ka’ana’ana said he spoke with rental car agency owners who reported that business is down 75 per cent.
Forbes reports that the number of flight passenger arrivals on Maui has been reduced from an average of 7,000 per day to approximately 2,000.
That’s a huge loss on an island where roughly 70 to 80 per cent of the GDP comes from tourism.
We’ve already heard about layoffs because people aren’t travelling to other parts of the island, like Wailuku, Hana, Wailea and Makena,’ Ka’ana’ana said. “Respectful and compassionate and empathetic travel to other parts of Maui outside of Lahaina and Kaanapali and all that is exactly what we need right now.”
A high school friend of mine works at one of the largest resorts in Ka’anapali and offered some thoughts of her own.
“Tourists should come stay in South side/Wailea and please not complain how they had to change their vacation,” she told me in a Facebook message. “Over 1000 adults and children have not been found and identified. Please, Jim, we appreciate tourists, it is just a very excruciating painful time and having tourists not listen not to come over to the Westside go past police barriers to take pictures of the destruction has really made us locals very mad.
“Many of us will be losing our jobs soon, many will move off the island because (there will be) no jobs. This is a very stressful time.
“Write tourists to be respectful to our island limitations and tragedy.”
Not everyone on the island is happy about visitors swimming in an ocean where people died trying to escape the fire. But Ka’ana’ana suggested they’re a minority.
“There will always be a handful of people who say that. And they’re some of the loudest. They got to (actor) Jason Mamoa in the early days. And he echoed that call (to stay away) in the early days. But I think that many, many residents I’ve spoken to, including community leaders in Lahaina, recognize that delicate balance and are now starting to say they welcome respectful compassionate visitation to other parts of the island if we give the Lahaina community and West Maui time to grieve and bury their loved ones and find a new place to live.
“They understand that families in other parts of the island need to work.”
“The west side is devastated and Lahaina is closed off, but Maui is still open, and the number one way to support Maui during the crisis is to come back. We need returning visitors and their smiling faces,” Javier Cantellops, a Maui tour operator and dive boat captain, recently told CBS MoneyWatch.
Another Maui resident said he understands concerns about tourists frolicking on the beach, but noted that he can’t donate to Maui charities if he doesn’t have an income.
"The Maui Chamber of Commerce supports our visitor industry and local businesses,” the Chamber states in a message on its website. “We stand with our many business members and partners in saying that while Lahaina is closed due to the tragedy, we welcome you to visit the other beautiful areas of our island community.
“Please visit with Aloha, shop local, and respect the Westside during this crisis and time for much-needed healing. Please do not visit any restricted areas and follow any County of Maui restrictions. There are still many beautiful spots to see and amazing things to do.”
In a press conference on August 21, Hawai’i Governor Josh Green made the following statement: “Right now I want to speak to the world when I say this: All of the other areas of Maui are safe and open. When you come you will support our local economy and help speed the recovery of the people who are suffering right now.”
Ka’ana’ana said supporting local businesses is a great way to help Maui residents.
“First off, we want to tell people to stay out of West Maui. We don’t need lookie-loos. We don’t need people going to Lahaina to try to see something. That’s the worst thing someone could do right now.
“But maybe they can go to a local restaurant or shop. Maybe they stay away from the big box stores right now. We love our Starbucks, but maybe visitors can go to a small café instead.”
Ka’ana’ana said the resort area of West Maui between Ka’anapali and Kapalua will remain closed by government decree until October 17. But many tourism workers are still employed in the region as local hotels hotels and resorts are being used as temporary housing for aid workers and displaced Lahaina residents.
Ka’ana’ana said he was on Maui for four days, from last Thursday to Monday. He was heading back when Open Jaw spoke with him on the phone.
“The devastation is unimaginable. It felt surreal and unfathomable. It’s heavy. It’s visceral. You can feel it, and I can only imagine how those who lived through it and survived are processing all of that.
“Through that we’ve spent time with community leaders in Lahaina. I don’t where the fountain of hope and resilience they’re drawing on comes from, but it’s truly awe-inspiring. They’re some of the most organized, compassionate and empathetic individuals I’ve ever met.”
Ka’ana’ana said he has spoken to several first responders on Maui.
“One woman told me she’s been to 19 major disaster areas in her career and she’d never seen a community as organized as the people on Maui. Another one said that by the time he got on the ground he said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. You folks have got this.’”
“That’s one piece of the story,” Ka’ana’ana told me. “I know there’s a lot more but that’s part of it.”
The numbers are out of date, but here’s a link to a personal story I wrote about Lahaina just after the fire. Two weeks later I’m still filled with an aching sadness for an island and a people I dearly love.