Maui Tourists Will Find Most Activities Available and Businesses Open, But With Limitations
With the backdrop of Lanaʻi during a perfect Maui morning, a group of humpback whales put on quite the show Tuesday for visitors on three Lahaina-based tour boats filled at about half capacity.
“I don’t think the whales know we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic,” joked tourist Richard Bill of Bloomington, IL, who had just finished a whale watching excursion with Maui Adventure Cruises.
Visitors traveling to Maui now will find a destination on the rebound, with tourism at levels about 30 percent what they were a year ago — when record numbers were arriving with no end in sight.
Most tourist-related businesses now are open in some capacity — and with new safety protocols in place, including an island-wide mask mandate. Most activities are available, but there is less entertainment, with many annual events and festivals cancelled or going virtual.
Bill and his wife have vacationed regularly on Maui for the past 25 years. During this trip, he said they have been able to do just about everything they have in the past with some exceptions. They have not been able to go to shows at places like the still-closed Maui Arts & Cultural Center and they miss community “Friday Night” events that have been indefinitely cancelled.
Maui’s booming tourism industry came to a screeching halt in mid March 2020, when the new global virus led to the shutdown of all non-essential businesses and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people (including residents) flying to Hawaiʻi. Cruises ships also were prevented from stopping in Hawaiʻi.
Many places on Maui, including Front Street in Lahaina, became ghost towns. But visitors have been returning slowly but surely since Oct. 15, when the state of Hawaiʻi launched its Safe Travels Program that enabled people to skip the quarantine if they arrived with a negative COVID-19 test from a trusted partner. Cruise ships, however, still are not allowed to dock in Hawaiʻi.
December 2020 figures, the latest available from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, show hotel occupancy at 26 percent on Maui.
But since Feb. 1, the average number of visitors traveling to Maui has increased by more than 1,000 per day, compared to the average number of visitors from the start of Hawaiʻi’s Safe Travel Program to Jan. 31, 2021.
Since Feb. 1, 55,376 visitors have traveled to Maui for an average of 3,691 per day. The average was 2,547 visitors per day from Oct. 15 to Jan. 31, according to data from the COVID-19 State of Hawaiʻi Portal.
“I just spent a week down in Wailea, and it almost felt normal; it felt good,” said Bev Gannon, chef/owner of two Maui restaurants and Celebrations Catering. “People were walking on the paths and through the hotels. Occupancy was not where it was, but it is okay for now.”
Quentin Koch, President and General Manager of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, said the recent long weekend that included Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day seemed to be the busiest time for the islands since the shutdown last March.
“It felt busier than Christmas week,” he said.
As more visitors have returned, tourist-related businesses have kept pace accordingly with the increasing demand for activities, lodging and restaurants.
The Maui Ocean Center, one of Maui’s most popular attractions, reopened a month ago when it made economic sense due to the number of arriving visitors.
A new concierge company, Blue Hawaiian Activities, launched Feb. 1. It fills the void caused by the loss of Expedia Group’s “Expedia Local Expert,” which ceased operations across the Hawaiian Islands on Jan. 31. Blue Hawaiian Activities has hired many of Expedia Group’s experienced concierges and has been contracting with most of the group’s former clients.
Blue Hawaiian Activities presently offers more than 450 different tours/activities, now primarily on Maui and Oʻahu. They include golfing, massages, dinner on catamarans, deep sea fishing, whale watching, museum and aquarium tickets, helicopter adventures, diving and horseback riding.
Koch, who oversees the company that also operates on Kauaʻi and the Big Island, said its activity offerings are at 40 percent the level Expedia Group was offering before the pandemic struck. The new company’s goal is to be “fully opened” by summer.
Another popular Maui attraction, the Old Lahaina Lū’au, reopened Dec. 20. It was part of a group of lūʻau operators that presented a proposal to Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino to be allowed to operate at higher capacity and with bigger numbers than the public health emergency rules allowed. The reasoning was the lūʻaus operated outdoors and had enough room to meet safety protocols that included safely distancing tables and limiting the people at each table.
In October, the County of Maui issued new public health emergency rules that included the ability of lūʻaus to obtain County approval to operate at higher capacity than 50 percent and numbers more than 100 people (including staff) if safety protocols were met.
The Old Lahaina Lūʻau accommodated up to 464 guests pre-pandemic. The maximum now is 300. Management also eliminated the interactive stations that included how to hula dance and how to pound taro into poi. They now are done as presentations conducted on the main stage. The buffet also is gone, replaced by a five-course served meal.
Like many businesses, the Old Lahaina Lūʻau reopened with a limited schedule. It started at four days a week, and has been running five days a week for February, with plans to increase to six days a week in March. Recent bookings have been strong, with most of February sold out, said manager Kawika Freitas.
“One of the most important things since we reopened has been the positive reactions from our guests, and in the direction we wanted,” Freitas said. “We wanted our guests to feel safe when dining at our establishment. They mention in our comments that they feel safe, even before they talk about the food or the great show.”
Gannons reopened her farm-to-table restaurant, the Hāliʻimaile General Store, with safety protocols that she is “fanatical” about. She now also is only open five days a week, which enables her not to have to double staff with business down more than 50 percent.
“I used to do about 200 to 300 lunches a day,” she said. “Now weʻre at about 80.”
She has yet to reopen her namesake restaurant, Gannon’s on the Wailea Emerald Golf Course. “Just to turn the electricity on there, I’d have to do 200 dinners, happy hours and lunches,” she said. “I still don’t see that yet. But I think within another 60 days we will.”
She’s optimistic things are moving in the right direction. “I have 14 weddings booked for March. But they are not big weddings, and they are outside.”
The tourism industry has been balancing the concerns of many in the community over public health safety, especially due to the isolated geography of Maui and its limited medical facilities.
“We are trying not to put out there a hard sell or advertising campaign to get everyone to come back right away,” Freitas said. “We’re trying to be cautious.”
So far, the increase in visitors has not led to significant spikes in COVID-19 cases on Maui. And those in the tourism industry are trying to keep it that way.
A benefit of fewer visitors to the island has been less traffic, and less crowded beaches and trails. But the roads, and many of Maui’s popular places, are feeling busier lately.
Koch, of Blue Hawaiian Activities, said that talking to guests over the weekend they are viewing Maui “as back to normal. They still are able to enjoy beach time, mai tais, great ono and the wonderful culture and experiences, but it might be 6 feet apart and while wearing a mask.”