Maui Hawaii Wildfires: What’s Next for Maui Tourism?

One question lingers in the aftermath of the deadly wildfires that swept across the dreamy Maui. What’s next for Maui tourism? The coastal Lahaina was the most devastated when the fires broke out. The town was nearly razed to the ground, with over 100 people confirmed to have died.

The August 8th fires had a detrimental effect on Hawaii’s tourism sector. It is no secret that the locals are an enormous piece in the jigsaw for the Hawaiian travel industry. In the days following one of the US’ most devastating wildfires in over a century, there was burning outrage across social platforms. Many locals pushed the agenda that travelers should stay clear of Maui, at least for the time being.

Even celebrities weighed in, with Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa posting, “Our community needs time to heal, grieve, and restore,” on his Instagram. It seems like their pleas were heard. The Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism reveals that Maui gets around three million tourists annually, who spend about $5.4 billion. Before the wildfires, roughly 8,000 people came to Maui daily. Now, it’s about 2,000.

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The authorities are eager to get the train moving again. According to the economic development board, the island’s economy largely depends on tourists, with about 80% of annual income coming from tourism-related activities.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority urged travelers to halt non-essential travel to West Maui to allow the authorities to support the affected locals. The agency asked people to head to parts of Maui that weren’t affected by the fire, like Kahului, Wailuku, Kihei, Wailea, and Makena and to get in touch with their lodging to ensure they can still stay there.

As the community embarks on a long and painful recovery from the disaster, authorities face the dilemma of solving the immediate crisis and preserving the island’s breadwinner.

The long and painful road to recovery

Government experts believe it might cost over $5 billion to repair Maui after catastrophic wildfires that lasted days. Preliminary figures from FEMA and the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center suggest that fixing all the damaged homes and businesses could cost around $5.52 billion. Most of the damaged buildings were in Lahaina, a well-known tourist spot and an important historical place.

Data from the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicates that around 2,207 buildings were damaged by the wildfires. Of these, 86% are homes, and 9% are businesses. Additionally, about 4,500 residents are expected to require emergency shelter support.

The tourism question

Hawaiian people have often been vocal about the negative impact of the fast-growing tourism industry on their islands, which is by far the island’s most significant industry. Since the fires, many Hawaiians have shared their discontent on social media. They feel that some tourists have been insensitive, either by staying on the island or coming here recently.

This has put a lot of pressure on resources and has made service workers, who are already dealing with a lot, feel even worse. Also, some tourists have been swimming in waters where locals jumped to escape from fires on the dreadful days.

Since the wildfires started, about 46,000 people have left West Maui. There are around 1,000 hotel rooms left vacant by tourists. These rooms are now being used to help solve the housing crisis.

After the wildfire, the authorities asked tourists not to go to West Maui. The locals also joined in, asking travelers on social media to cancel their trips. Tourists have heeded the advice and canceled their vacations. But the no-activity stance will only slow the island’s economic recovery. Tourism is the island’s breadwinner and helps pay for roads, schools, and public places in the state and county.

With tourism taking a nosedive in Maui, businesses are in for a tough time. For example, restaurants like Tin Roof in Kahului have cut back their working hours. The popular Hāliʻimaile General Store, a bit farther east of Lahaina, had to close for a while. Even MauiWine, which has been growing grapes on Haleakalā and making wine for more than 40 years, had to send some of its workers home without work.

The economic damage in West Maui (lost business sales and tourist spending) adds up to about $9 million every day, as stated by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. In late August, Maui also saw a huge spike in unemployment claims, with 4,444 new claims filed, which is a massive 3,603 percent increase compared to the average weekly claims before the fire.

Maui is still open for business; how can you help?

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has maintained its stance, asking travelers to resume trips to other parts of the island besides West Maui. Obviously, the financial cost of shutting the door on tourists to West Maui is steep but unavoidable at this moment.

Lahaina, Kāʻanapali and Kapalua were popular travel destinations, but now travelers must heed the state’s appeal to head to other regions. Consider Kīhei and Wailea on the sunny south shores of Maui. Pāiʻa is an excellent surf town up north, and Hāna is a charming, off-the-beaten paradise to the east. Maui folks reiterate visitors are always welcome as long as they are respectful during their stay.

How else can you help? You can donate to groups such as the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund or the Maui Food Bank when you visit. On August 31, Oprah Winfrey, who lives part-time in Maui, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, born in Hawaii, started the People’s Fund of Maui to help people impacted by the wildfires. They gave $10 million to get it started.

Try to buy from local stores, go to a farmers market, or eat at local restaurants whenever you can. Also, see if you can find businesses receiving donations to help the Maui people recover. Many of them share this information on their websites and social media.

It is too early to tell whether and how the wildfires will affect Maui’s tourism in the long term. But in the immediate future, tourism, as Maui knows, is at a standstill.

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