Maui tourism, an economic mainstay, sparks anger amid fire ruin

By Doyinsola Oladipo, Julia Harte and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The incongruous sight of tourists enjoying Maui’s tropical beaches while search-and-rescue teams trawl building ruins and waters for victims of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century has outraged some residents.

They have vented on social media, posting video of tourists enjoying holiday activities like snorkeling while the death toll in the historic resort town of Lahaina passes 100 and is rising every day.

“Our community needs time to heal, grieve, and restore,” Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa said on Instagram, urging tourists to cancel their trips.

Authorities and businesses have welcomed the trickle of travelers, saying it will lessen the blow to the island’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism. The industry is Maui’s “economic engine,” generating 80% of its wealth, according to the island’s economic development board.

As Maui embarks on a long, painful recovery from the fires, officials are wrestling with how to balance residents’ immediate needs for housing and resources against the island’s long-term financial health.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green recalled at a weekend press conference how the COVID-19 pandemic similarly forced the state to weigh the risks of allowing tourists in during a public health crisis against the harm Hawaii’s economy would suffer from barring them.

“All of our people will need to survive, and we can’t afford to have no jobs or no future for our children,” Green said. “When you restrict any travel to a region, you really devastate its own local residents in many ways more than anyone else.”

Tourism has taken a hit in the week since the wildfire devastated Lahaina, a popular vacation destination that was also home to historic sites significant to Hawaiian residents.

The number of airline passengers to Maui on Sunday was down nearly 81% compared to the same time last year, according to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

In 2022, 2.9 million tourists visited Maui, which has a year-round population of 165,000, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. The state tourism department reported in February that visitors spent $5.69 billion on Maui in 2022.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority now is asking visitors to avoid all non-essential travel to West Maui, the part of the island affected by the fires, so resources can be used to help locals recover.

“It is likely that a big chunk of the people who are affected, losing family members, losing family homes, it’s likely a lot of them were employed by the visitor industry,” tourism authority spokesperson Ilihia Gionson said.

Hotels in West Maui have temporarily stopped accepting bookings. Many are housing their employees and preparing to house evacuees and first-responders working on disaster recovery, according to the tourism authority.

The agency urged visitors to areas of Maui that did not burn – such as Kahului, Wailuku, Kihei, Wailea and Makena – to contact their accommodation and ensure they could still be hosted.

“Maui is not closed,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said at the weekend press conference alongside the governor. “Many of our residents make their living off of tourism.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday, the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea Beach in South Maui said all hotel operations were running normally, but that it was encouraging tourists with August reservations to postpone their trips until the rest of the island had recovered more fully.

Occupancy at the five-star hotel had plunged “dramatically” since the fire, a front desk operator said.

Hotel operator Hilton Worldwide Holdings, which has 23 hotels throughout Hawaii, said it was waiving cancellation penalties for those traveling to, from or through all islands of Hawaii through Aug. 31.

Jack Richards, CEO of Los Angeles-based travel company Pleasant Holidays, scrambled to evacuate more than 400 customers who were on Maui during the fires. Dead phone lines and lost internet connections hampered the efforts, he said.

Most of the tourists were eventually relocated to other Hawaiian islands. Another 1,400 customers with August travel plans to Maui need to be rebooked, he said.

Tour operators who continued to offer services in or around West Maui after the fires faced a flood of criticism.

A company that held a charity snorkeling tour on Friday 11 miles (18 km) from Lahaina later issued an apology and said it was suspending operations for the time being.

(Reporting by Rich McKay, Doyinsola Oladipo and Julia Harte; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Stephen Coates)