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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After Maui wildfires, travelers ask: Would a trip help or hurt?

The Lahaina Shores Beach Resort stands damaged beyond buildings destroyed by wildfires in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii on Aug. 10, 2023.

By Christine Chung and Madison Malone Kircher

In the throes of responding to the Maui wildfires that razed the celebrated town of Lahaina and claimed more than 110 lives, Hawaii remains mostly open for tourism, despite the misgivings of both residents and tourists.

“Do not come to Maui,” Kate Ducheneau, 29, a Lahaina resident, said in a TikTok video that has been viewed more than 2 million times since it was posted Sunday. “Cancel your trip. Now.”

“It’s just kind of a gut-wrenching feeling to see other people enjoying parts of their life that we used to welcome,” she said, adding that her home was severely damaged by fire and her family evacuated with minutes to spare.

This month’s tragedy has intensified long-simmering tension over the archipelago’s economic reliance on tourism, a dependency that sparked anti-tourism protests in recent years and brought the state to its knees during the pandemic. Many residents, particularly in Maui, are furious over the uncomfortable, contradictory scenario of visitors frolicking in the state’s lush forests or sunbathing on white-sand beaches while they grieve the immense loss of life, home and culture. Others believe that tourism, while particularly painful now, is vital.

“People forget real quick right now, how many local businesses shut down during COVID,” said Daniel Kalahiki, who operates a food truck in Wailuku on Maui, east of Lahaina. The island needs to heal, and the disaster areas are far from recovered, he said, but the tourist-go-home messaging is irresponsible and harmful.

“No matter what, the rest of Maui has to keep going on,” said Kalahiki, 52. “The island has already been shot in the chest. Are you going to stab us in the heart also?”

The devastating loss of life and these conflicting messages are causing travelers to grapple over the propriety of visiting Maui, or anywhere in Hawaii, in the near future, prompting them to ask if their dollars would help or their presence would hamper recovery efforts.

“If we’re in a Vrbo, is that going to take away from a potential person who’s been displaced?” said Stephanie Crow, an Oklahoman traveling to Maui this fall for her wedding.

Official guidance from the Hawaiian government has shifted in the past week, first discouraging travelers from visiting the entire island of Maui, and now from West Maui for the rest of the month. Travel to the other islands, including tourist-draws Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island, remains unaffected.

State tourism groups say that travel is encouraged to support Hawaii’s recovery and to prevent it from plunging into a deeper crisis.

“Tourism is Hawaii’s major economic driver, and we don’t want to compound a horrific natural disaster of the fires with a secondary economic disaster,” said Ilihia Gionson, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Vital to the economy

For those in the tourism industry, the year was off to a promising start. Visitor spending through June was $10.78 billion, a 17% increase compared to the same period last year, according to Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. The pandemic’s woes were in the past.

But tension over growing tourist numbers was not. Hawaii has for decades been one of the top destinations for American and international visitors and has struggled to balance tourism with residents’ demands to acknowledge and protect the islands’ traditional culture. Visitor-reliant countries like Jamaica, Thailand and Mexico navigate similar existential issues.

A year ago, John De Fries, the first Native Hawaiian to lead the Tourism Authority, told The New York Times that “local residents have a responsibility to host visitors in a way that is appropriate. Conversely, visitors have a responsibility to be aware that their destination is someone’s home, someone’s neighborhood, someone’s community.”

In the tourism agency’s most recent resident sentiment survey, issued in July, 67% of 1,960 respondents across four islands expressed “favorable” views of tourism in the state. But the same percentage agreed with the assertion: “This island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

In the immediate days after the fires, frustration over visitors in Maui erupted.

“People are preying on trauma,” wrote Kailee Soong, a spiritual mentor who lives on Maui in Waikapu, on a TikTok post.

Tourists are still in stores even though resources are limited, said Soong, 33, in the video. “They are in the way right now as people mourn the loss of their loved ones, of the places that burned down, of the history that was completely erased.”

“Maui is not the place to have your vacation right now,” said Oahu-born actor Jason Momoa in an Instagram Story. He posted an infographic that read “stop traveling to Maui” and included guidance on how to make donations. There was fierce outcry after a Maui-based snorkeling company conducted a charity tour after the wildfires, leading the company to issue an apology and suspend operations.

The industry supplies approximately 200,000 jobs across the islands, and last year, a little over 9 million visitors spent $19.29 billion, according to the Tourism Authority. About 3 million visitors went to Maui, where the “visitor industry” accounts for 80% of every dollar generated on the island, the Maui Economic Development Board said.

“Just like everybody, we need to work. We just got over COVID. Things are just starting to get better. To think that everything might shut down again,” said Reyna Ochoa, a 46-year-old who lives in Haiku in North Maui and works several jobs outside of the tourism industry. “The islands need the tourism and the income to rebuild.”

In Wailuku, Kalahiki said that his food truck sales have dropped by half. Streets usually “popping” with tourists have been empty, he said, and there have been days when his wife, who has a beach apparel store in town, hasn’t sold a single item.

Travelers search for clarity

Then there are the travelers who have saved up for their first vacations in years, many with plans to reunite with family or to celebrate weddings and honeymoons. Many want to be respectful and are searching for clarity on what that looks like, deluging online forums to ask local residents where and when it is acceptable to visit.

Early next month, Danett Williams, 48, will spend her honeymoon on the Big Island, where fires burned in North and South Kohala.

For days, she and her fiance went back and forth about canceling their trip, considering a road trip from their home in San Francisco instead. Ultimately, they decided their tourism dollars were helpful, as long as they stayed clear of other islands and did not take up necessary space or resources away from displaced residents, she said.

Others, like Crow, from Oklahoma, say that vendors like her wedding planner are asking her to keep their trip. In early September, Crow, 47, and her fiance plan to get married on a beach in Kihei, about 20 miles south of Lahaina. It was supposed to be a wedding in a “happy, blissful paradise” setting, she said.

“These are first-world problems I’m dealing with. They’ve lost life, homes, income. They’ve lost everything,” Crow said.

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