Two months after wildfires on the western shores of Maui killed 97 people, destroyed the historic town of Lahaina and burned more than 2,100 acres, a state order discouraging travel to the area was lifted on Sunday. But whether local hotels and businesses plan to welcome visitors remains uncertain.
Maui, Hawaii’s second largest island, remains in the throes of recovery, with West Maui schools still shuttered, hundreds of businesses closed and thousands of people out of work and living in temporary housing at local hotels. The state government’s decision to reopen has encountered fierce pushback among some residents, who say the step is rushed, and a petition to delay the reopening has been signed by more than 15,000 people.
The mayor of Maui County, Richard Bissen, said tourism’s return will be measured, and in late September announced a voluntary, staggered approach to reopening, one that begins with only hotels in the northernmost portion of West Maui welcoming guests. In a statement issued on Thursday, Gov. Josh Green called the phased approach “a gentle reopening that will serve both the people and local businesses.”
The absence of tourism, the island’s main economic driver, has threatened a second crisis: Since the fires, Maui has lost more than $13 million per day in visitor spending, according to one analysis by the University of Hawaii.
Here’s what visitors need to know.
What areas are now open to travelers?
The West Maui communities of Kaanapali, Napili, Honokowai and Kapalua, north of the region hardest hit by the fires, are now open to tourists, according to the emergency proclamation, posted Sept. 9 by Governor Green. The town of Lahaina and its surrounding areas remain closed to tourists.
Travel to other areas of Maui that were not damaged by the fires, such as Wailea, has not been restricted, despite initial pushback from some residents about the propriety of visiting any part of Maui. And there were no prohibitions against travel to Hawaii’s other islands.
However, the reopening doesn’t mean all hotels, restaurants and other businesses in West Maui are operating — and some state and local officials for weekswere seemingly at odds on what shape and cadence West Maui’s reopening should take.
In his statement, Governor Green appeared to clear the air, by praising Mayor Bissen and indicating that the mayor should handle the reopening.
“The recovery can be a community-led, government-supported effort to help the people of Lahaina,” the governor said.
The first stage of Mayor Bissen’s voluntary plan — opening hotels and businesses in communities from Kapalua to Kahana — will be assessed before two subsequent phases, which focus on neighborhoods farther south, where a greater number of displaced residents are being housed, start. No dates for these latter stages have been shared.
Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, called the competing directives from Mayor Bissen and Governor Green “mixed messages” that have confused hotel operators, residents and tourists alike.
“Everybody is hurting,” she said last week. “We’re still reeling from the devastation so these contradictory messages are not helping anything.”
Mufi Hannemann, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said that most hotels want to comply with the mayor’s phased reopening, but he also emphasized that this was a guideline that doesn’t come with any enforcement.
What hotels in West Maui are open now?
Hotels in West Maui will be opening in a piecemeal fashion. Under the mayor’s guidance, businesses on a three-mile stretch from the Ritz Carlton in Kapalua to Kahana Villa in Kahana were encouraged to open starting Sunday. Only several hotels in this area — including the Ritz Carlton — will actually welcome visitors by Oct. 8, Ms. Paulson said. According to its website, Kahana Villa is asking “any reservations through October 17th be rescheduled.”
What happens after that is very fluid, Mr. Hannemann said, with hotels evaluating daily whether and when they should open.
Farther south in Wailea and Kihei, all major hotels and resorts are already open, Mr. Hannemann said. In Wailea, the Fairmont Kea Lani is offering guests a fifth night free, a spokesperson said. They’re hoping to lure guests who previously canceled, with incentives including free breakfast and room upgrades.
Overall, hotels are continuing to waive cancellation fees until they reopen.
Over the last two months, hotels operated by local and major brands, including Outrigger, Marriott and Hyatt, have sheltered emergency responders and wildfire evacuees, as well as their own staff members who were displaced. The bulk of this housing effort is concentrated in the Kaanapali area, industry leaders said. Most hotels there will not be open in early October, Ms. Paulson said. Some, like the Westin Maui Resort and the Hyatt Regency, aren’t accepting new bookings until November.
What about Lahaina and its residents?
But permanent housing remains a crisis. As of this week, more than 6,800 people were staying at dozens of area hotels coordinated by the Red Cross, including the Hyatt Regency and the Royal Lahaina Resort in Kaanapali. About 545 others are staying at Airbnb rentals and roughly 100 people have acquired housing through a government program crowdsourcing available rooms and units from homeowners, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism said.
Officials have stressed that evacuees will not be displaced to accommodate anyone, including the tourists they seek to galvanize the island’s recovery.
“We don’t anticipate a large number of people coming, but we also didn’t want the many people who asked us to open up to have to relocate themselves,” Gov. Green said at a news conference on Sept. 21. “We are not pushing people out.”
What should travelers expect?
Recent visitors have commented online about how empty the island feels, with hundreds of hotel rooms vacant, once bustling restaurants closed and beaches deserted.
Owners of restaurants that are heavily reliant on tourism, such as Merriman’s in Kapalua, said they can’t open without more tourists to keep them afloat.
“What we’re going to do is wait and judge the market and open when we think demand can support our restaurants,” said Peter Merriman, the restaurant’s chef and owner. “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg. Tourists want restaurants before visiting, we want customers before we reopen our restaurants.”
In August, Maui reported the lowest visitor arrival and spending numbers in more than two years, according to the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Compared to August of last year, visitor arrivals dropped to 112,259 from 266,176, or nearly 58 percent, and spending fell by 49 percent, to $247 million from $484 million.
The tourism decline in Maui has reverberated statewide, with visitor arrivals decreasing by about 7 percent and spending plummeting by roughly 8 percent to $1.58 billion last August compared to the same month last year.
Travel industry leaders said they anticipated tourism’s return after Oct. 8 to be a slow drip.
Officials are requesting respectful tourism. What does that look like?
State and local officials, industry leaders and residents have described the kind of tourism they hope to cultivate after the fires as “conscious,” “mindful” and “respectful.”
But this is not a new sentiment in Hawaii. The state has long grappled with balancing tourism and its negative effects — soaring rents and home prices fueling a housing shortage — with its economic reliance on the industry.
Until recently, locals and officials signaled that respectful behavior wasn’t limited just to staying clear of Lahaina, but avoiding all of the neighborhoods in West Maui. Now, with West Maui’s return, the boundaries and norms are fuzzier. Some officials and residents suggest that visitors should prioritize local businesses and potentially include volunteering to aid relief efforts.
“The visitor experience will be different for a while, but we welcome people back to support us and our communities, and get people back to work,” said Jerry Gibson, president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance.
But officials and residents alike repeat one thing. A stop at Lahaina shouldn’t be part of any traveler’s itinerary. And remember that the entire community in Maui has experienced trauma and is grieving.
“Knowing this, proper attitude and reverence should be applied toward the place, as well as the people who live and work in Maui,” Mr. Hannemann said.
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