Tale of two Mauis: West Maui/Lahaina devastated by fire; rest of Maui reeling from loss of tourists who fuel economy
August 28, 2023, 5:00 AM HST
* Updated August 29, 6:21 AM
Beginning the morning after the Aug. 8 fire destroyed much of Lahaina, Hawaiʻi Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, other officials, airlines and even Aquaman told tourists: Stay away from Maui by avoiding non-essential travel.
The tourists listened.
Those already on Maui left the island in a mass exodus, and those with plans to come began immediately to cancel trips.
While West Maui, where Lahaina is located, and fire-affected parts of Kula remain no place for visitors — with teams still searching for remains, and its survivors and communities in the early stages of recovery — the rest of the island was unharmed by the fires.
The narrative has since shifted, with leaders telling visitors that travel to West Maui is still restricted, but other parts of Maui and the rest of the state are safe.
But many businesses, and many people who live and work on the rest of the island, are being devastated financially with the sudden loss of tourism, the fuel that drives Maui’s economy.
It has been somewhat like the abrupt COVID-19 shutdown, with rental cars once again filling fields by Kahului Airport.
A resident called Maui’s renowned Mama’s Fish House on a Wednesday and got a reservation for Friday, at an oceanside table. Karen Christenson, daughter of the founders, said the restaurant usually books up to three months in advance, but since the fire it has lost about 50% of its reservations. This has forced her to put staff on part-time schedules in order to keep the doors open.
And, she added: “The other day, for the first time, I had to turn down a fisherman with a fresh catch. It was heartbreaking for me.”
The loss of visitors hurts many parts of Maui’s economy, including the hotels, tour companies, stores and cleaning businesses — and all the people who work at them, and all their families who survive on these incomes. Businesses are closing. People are being laid off. Even Costco in Kahului has less traffic than usual. It’s the trickle down effect.
Eric Hofer, general sales manager for Jim Falk Motors of Maui, said he half expected an uptick in his business as a result of people losing their cars in the fire. Instead, he has dealt with droves of people wanting him to buy their cars.
“I have had so many folks coming to me wanting to sell their cars and leave the island,” he said. “There is no one here.”
While exact numbers for the drop in tourists for August are not available yet, passenger arrival numbers are down by half for the month to date compared to a year ago, said Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer for the Hawai’i Tourism Authority.
In addition, the estimated economic loss from the businesses that have closed or been lost due to the fire is around $9 million per day across the state, Gionson said. This translates into roughly $1 million per day reduction in visitor spending – mostly lost on Maui.
The signs of the lack of tourists are visible across the island, from empty planes to nail salons with few customers to once busy boat ramps now quiet with commercial SCUBA and snorkeling trips cancelled. And no lines, which usually snake around the block, at the popular Kīhei Caffe.
“We should be 80% busier,” said Capt. Keone Laepaa, a 100-ton boat captain for Makena Coast Charters. “We are down to one boat a week. The financial impact is worse than COVID because we are not getting the [government] assistance.”
Laepaa normally runs two to three boats a day from the Kīhei boat ramp.
Brooklyn Samm, owner of Blue Water Rafting, noticed the drop in bookings around Aug. 11, three days after the deadly Lahaina fire. Her company had been running supplies for first responders and others up the coast to Lahaina, when the main road was closed.
The bookings for her business are down more than 90% she said. They used to run three to four boat trips a day, averaging 75 people. This week, they had two bookings of four people and another for two.
“The majority have been emailing or calling to cancel,” she said. “They say that they have seen something on the news or heard that it is not a good time to come to Maui.”
The business, which was established in 1985, has survived several economic downturns, including the COVID-19 shut downs, Samm said. She isn’t sure it will manage to ride out this latest setback.
“We are patiently waiting for the numbers to go up. Just waiting for one day the boats to fill back up,” she said.
It’s understandable why many visitors think it is not the right thing to do to vacation on Maui now. Right after the fire officials urged people not to make any unnecessary travel to Maui, while most of the island’s resources were going to help the survivors, many who had no electricity, water or internet.
This was further fueled by airlines sending alerts to customers saying not to fly to Maui. The comments on social media from Hollywood actor Jason Momoa also did not help, Laepaa said.
Two weeks ago, Honolulu-born Momoa, who played Aquaman, warned tourists not to visit Maui on his Prideofgypsies Instagram account with 17.2 million followers. His plea also was reported by news organizations around the world.
He said: “Maui is not the place to have your vacation right now. DO NOT TRAVEL TO MAUI. Do not convince yourself that your presence is needed on an island that is suffering this deeply. Mahalo to everyone who has donated and shown aloha to the community in this time of need.”
His posts since then have been more specific, acknowledging the economic impacts: “Please continue to kakoʻo Maui. Please support local business on the island and spend your dollars intentionally… at this time West Maui remains closed… For now, we must honor the grief that Lahaina has endured.”
On Aug. 14, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen was asked during a press conference about tourists.
“What weʻve said: ‘Please don’t go to the west side of Maui. Don’t go to West Maui.’ Obviously, there is so much going on to try to rebuild it,” Bissen said. “But the rest of Maui is still open, such as South Maui, Wailea, Makena and Kīhei. We have not shipped anyone out. We’ve not asked anyone to leave. As far as tourism is concerned, it’s a a major driver of our economy here.”
Green said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, which shutdown tourism throughout the state for six months, he was able to get funding to help most people affected.
“During this crisis, this catastrophe, I will only likely be able to seek very significant finances and financial support for those who are affected,” he said. “And that means people who were affected by loss of jobs in Lahaina, or of course loss of property and loss of life. So it is a much smaller swath.”
Green went on to say: “So for that reason, we want to protect all people in Maui. And it would be potentially catastrophic if no one traveled to the island, we would probably see a mass exodus from Maui. But we will be compassionate.”
Gionson of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority said some of the reason for the decline in visitor numbers right after a disaster like the fire has to do with geography. When disaster hits and reports go out, there is an impression that it is the whole of an island that is engulfed in the tragedy rather than a portion. Gionson said that during the eruption of Kīlauea, many believed the whole of the Big Island was affected by the volcano rather than a small, rural part.
“One of the things we learned after the volcano eruption was that it is important to be clear about the geography of the tragedy,” he said.
Laepaa said that people wouldn’t stop visiting Disney World in Orlando just because there was a disaster in nearby Fort Myers, Fla.
With President Joe Biden by his side on Aug. 14, Hawaiʻi Gov. Josh Green made it clear that while West Maui should be off limits to the casual visitor, the rest of the island and the rest of the state is open and needs help.
“All the other areas of Maui, and the rest of Hawai’i are safe,” he said. “They are open. They are available… The reason I say that is if you come you will support our local economy and speed up the recovery of those who are suffering now.”
The Hawaiian Tourism Authority paused its tourism promotion efforts during the first week of the fire, awaiting instruction from emergency officials on travel. But now it has restarted its efforts to promote and market vacations to the islands in its biggest markets, Gionson said.
Part of the promotional push will be a special emphasis on promoting Maui in its two biggest markets, the United States mainland and Canada, Gionson said. These campaigns will have specific messages about Maui, using voices of people from Maui to welcome visitors back.
“We will use different platforms to reach the mindful traveler,” Gionson said. “We heard loud and clear that Lahaina needs time, and the resorts in that area need some space. But it is important to not neglect the rest of the island.”
The rest of the island also is doing its part to support the West side, including many of the commercial boats out of Kīhei and Māʻalaea running supplies to the west side when the road was closed. The rest of the island will be in a better position to continue to help in the long run if its economy is healthy.
So, what else can be done to get tourists back?
Gionson said the best thing is for people to tell their stories. In the early days of the fire, people were quick to put out what happened on social media, showing the tragedy and telling people not to come to Maui. That same sort of energy can help bring visitors back to the island.
“The most powerful thing people can do to help bring up visitor numbers is to tell their stories,” he said. “All the marketing in the world doesn’t move the needle [on public opinion] as much as people’s stories.”
Stories from residents like Laepaa, a Native Hawaiian, who wants to show that despite what is happening in West Maui, you can still come to Maui, enjoy your vacation and be respectful – by not going into Lahaina or, if you want to assist, look into volunteering in the clean-up and recovery efforts.
“Please continue to plan your vacation [to Maui], but be respectful,” Laepaa said. “Lahaina is closed, but the rest of Maui isn’t.”
Samm from Blue Water Rafting said for residents and business to help recover, they have to help themselves.
“I always say that in order for us to help others, we have to get paid, too,” Samm continued. “Not only are small businesses going to need you to go on tours, but there are likely a need for volunteers. So come.”
Mama’s Fish House is going to start a retail fish market in the coming week, to assist local fisherman whose livelihoods have been affected by the slowdown, Christenson said.
A knock-on effect of the loss in bookings is being passed on to suppliers including the 200 farms and 50 fishing boats from across Hawai’i who supply the restaurant with much of its food.
There is also a silver lining in the slow down: locals, many of whom have never had the chance to get into Mama’s, now have been taking the opportunity to come and support the business.
One Mama’s waiter said four times to a group of five diners: “Thank you for coming. It supports our families.”