Maui Is Open for Travel, but the Loss of Lahaina May Reshape Tourism


The loss of Lahaina remains a wound felt across all of Maui.

Two months after destructive wildfires killed at least 97 people and razed thousands of acres of the island’s western side, Maui is fully open to visitors. Tourists are bustling along streets on the north coast, sunbathing on Kihei beaches and admiring the dazzling double rainbows stretched across Kapalua Bay. But the historic town of Lahaina, once West Maui’s prime destination, is partly shielded from view by dust screens, charred palm trees and brightly painted signs on the highway entreating people to “Let Lahaina heal” and “Respect the locals.” Checkpoints restrict residents from entering freely.

Lahaina had famous restaurants and lively bars that made it a linchpin of area tourism. But the businesses, like the town, were flattened. Without Lahaina, the path to recovery in West Maui, and islandwide, is uncertain, a handful of Maui residents in various industries recently emphasized.

“Unfortunately tourism is just such a big part of our economy. When something like this happens, the domino effect is catastrophic,” said Jasmine Kilborn, whose business, Holo Holo Maui Tours, specializes in private excursions around the island. The company website still says that travelers can “enjoy at leisure time in Lahaina Town.” Ms. Kilborn, 42, along with the company’s four other employees, are on unemployment. Their business has been decimated, she said.

State and local officials, mindful of the tragedy, have structured the West Maui reopening in phases. The first phase, opening tourist accommodations north of Lahaina from the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua to the Kahana Villa in Kahana, began on Oct. 8. The final phase, covering the rest of the region down to Kaanapali, will begin on Nov. 1, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen announced Oct. 23.

The area has changed. In Kaanapali, nearly half of the businesses at Whalers Village, an open-air shopping complex selling the symbols of a Hawaiian vacation — vibrant Aloha shirts, beachwear, accessories shaped like plumeria flowers — are closed. Nearby, there is plenty of space to lay down a towel on Kaanapali Beach. Occupancy for hotel rooms, time-share units and rental properties in West Maui is below 30 percent and lags significantly behind that of South Maui, which includes destinations like Kihei, according to the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association.

Frankie Urias, 46, works at Joey’s Kitchen in Napili, a restaurant that is famous for Filipino-Hawaiian cuisine. He said the West Maui area, which used to be packed “shoulder to shoulder,” continues to be eerily quiet, despite government pleas for tourists to return to Maui.

“Lahaina was a big tourist attraction. Without that here, there’s the resorts — there’s really not much to see over here,” Mr. Urias said.

On a recent Saturday, the first full weekend after the area reopened, three women were sitting at the bar of Joey’s Kitchen. As they ordered another round of “bubbly,” one proclaimed: “We’re here to spend money. We don’t have a lot of it, but they need it more.”

The recovery may be coming, slowly. But while so much is gone, so many of the old issues remain: the island’s deep reliance on tourism, tension between visitors and residents, soaring real estate prices, concern over disrespect for local traditions and culture.

In Lahaina, in the weeks and months to come, increasing tourism will coexist with ongoing relief efforts. Visitors will share the same hotels where evacuees, who’ve lost everything, are sleeping, receiving free meals and trying to restart their lives. Many residents say they’re not ready for this duality. But they have no choice.

In the days after the fires, tourism to Maui was in a free fall. On Aug. 26, 18 days after the fires, the number of people arriving daily on domestic flights plummeted to just over 1,500 people, a 78 percent drop from the same day in 2019, according to the state agency overseeing tourism.

Messaging spread on social media for tourists to avoid all of Maui and paralyzed the economy, where tourism accounts for 70 percent of every dollar generated. Last year, about three million visitors spent $5.82 billion on Maui, according to state data.

State and local leaders have spent the last two months pleading for tourists to visit.

“After Oct. 8, if you could come to Hawaii, and really help fortify us, because it’s been a very tough time,” Gov. Josh Green said in a televised interview with CBS. “You will be helping our people heal.”

On Oct. 9, the day after West Maui reopened to tourism, the island recorded its highest number of arrivals since the fires — more than 4,500 arrivals, only a 27 percent decline from the same day in 2019.

While West Maui is quiet, visitors now appear to be concentrated in the south, in Kihei, a laid-back beach town, and Wailea, a swankier area home to sprawling luxury resorts. Here, on a recent Sunday, a small crowd watched the sun set, a layer of clouds nestling around the island of Lanai in the distance. Numerous visitors said it felt normal to be there, even lively, and business owners said their restaurants and a food-truck park were filling up again.

Some travelers said they were on deferred vacations after being encouraged by their accommodation providers and the government’s messaging to reschedule after the fires. John Spearman, of El Mirage, Ariz., was on his first trip to Hawaii, to the islands of Oahu and Maui, and so far he’d found it “beautiful and serene.” He and his family stayed in Kihei and did not intend to go anywhere near West Maui, he said.

“We want to, but feel like we might be in the way,” said Mr. Spearman, 44. “Kind of feels like going to ground zero.”

Even visitors with yearslong connections to West Maui are wary of being too present in the area. Ray and Kathy Wetherholt of Seattle have visited Maui annually for about 30 years. This time, instead of returning to their usual accommodation in Napili, they are staying in Kihei.

In busy Kihei, said Mr. Wetherholt, 71, “you’d never know” there was an immense tragedy only about 30 miles up the road.

Ms. Kilborn, of Holo Holo Maui Tours, noticed that tourists who previously stayed close to their accommodations in West or South Maui are exploring further in Upcountry and on the North Shore. These areas were sleepier in the past, she said, with less pronounced tourism.

“Makawao has been busy lately, and Paia too, because Lahaina is gone,” Ms. Kilborn said. “These towns are going to feel the effect of it, when they’re used to something that’s a little bit more quiet,” Ms. Kilborn said. “That might lead to permanent change.”

Travelers to West Maui aren’t just kicking back at their hotels with mai tais, but are frequenting local stores and volunteering. Last weekend at the Kapalua location of Merriman’s restaurant, dozens of people — many of them tourists — helped assemble and pack meals of roasted mahi-mahi with steamed rice and local fruit.

The fine-dining restaurant, perched on the edge of Kapalua Bay Beach, is usually a destination for special occasions like weddings. But for the last two months, Merriman’s has shifted into a meal distribution site providing hundreds of free meals daily. The restaurant, which reopened to the public last week, is now balancing community service with dinner preparations.

Sandra Ervin, 63, of Laguna Beach, Calif., sat at a table labeling boxes, steps away from where her husband proposed to her 20 years before. She and her family have a time-share near Whalers Village.

“I certainly won’t say it feels normal, nor should it,” Ms. Ervin said. “We really do need to be completely focused on what we can do to help with the healing. Sometimes that means getting out of the way. But it also means this: volunteering and seeing what we can do.”

Merriman’s employees, many who were directly affected by the fire, said seeing the good intentions of the volunteers had been affirming.

“They take the time to help; it’s not just vacation,” said Damian Rubio, 41, the restaurant’s executive chef. “It’s really appreciated.”

Loss and grief were felt everywhere on the island — everyone seemed to have a direct link to the tragedy.

Shortly after sunrise on a recent Saturday at Polo Beach in Wailea, dozens of people in kayaks and curved outrigger canoes paddled into the ocean. They guided their vessels in rhythmic, swooping circles in sync, in remembrance of loved ones lost to illness and to the fires. The event, hosted by the Fairmont Kea Lani resort, was part of a celebration of Hawaii’s voyaging culture. Resort guests, coffees in hand, peered curiously over manicured hedges lining the beach, observing the sunrise prayers and memorial in respectful silence.

Kimokeo Kapahulehua, the president and founder of the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Voyaging Society, said it was vital that visitors see and respect Hawaiian culture, especially now, when “all of us were affected by the fire.” His son, he said, lost his home in Lahaina and is living at a hotel in Kaanapali, along with thousands of other displaced residents. His grandson’s school burned down.

“We want to make sure they learn our culture. To care for our ocean and our land,” said Mr. Kapahulehua, 75, of Wailuku. “It takes a village to care for our ohana.” Family.

More than 10,000 local residents signed a petition to delay the reopening, saying the affected community had not been properly consulted and that benchmarks, such as more stable long-term housing for displaced people, should have been met before the government looked to tourism. The reopening continued as planned.

Sne Patel, president of the LahainaTown Action Committee and a director at Maui Resort Rentals, said this was the moment to rectify Hawaii’s painful relationship with unfettered tourism, something that has contributed to a dearth of housing and soaring real estate prices — fundamental problems that existed long before the fire blazed.

“It’s hard living in a place where you have travelers here that are able to enjoy themselves at a certain sort of freedom and level, whereas you living here servicing those individuals don’t have that luxury. And it’s painful when you have generations upon generations that have been neglected,” said Mr. Patel, 44, whose rental property in Lahaina was destroyed in the fire.

“Going forward, how can we stop it being so extractive and find a balance to where those that are living and working here have the prosperity that balances that activity,” he said.

The real litmus test for tourism on Maui without Lahaina is nearing: The winter holidays, Maui’s peak tourist season, will be a bellwether of how the island’s tourism industry moves forward, travel and hotel experts said.

Officials say they are in the midst of transitioning people into longer-term, stable housing, but more than 6,800 people displaced by the fires are living in 35 hotels across the island, Governor Green said at a Wednesday news conference. These accommodations are mainly clustered in Kaanapali; some have now also opened to tourists. All around the area, Red Cross posters by beachside resorts direct evacuees to free meals and other support.

Tentative opening dates for other major hotels housing large populations of displaced residents, like the 508-unit Sheraton Maui Resort, start in December. The 438-unit Royal Lahaina said on its website that it would be closed to tourists through the end of this year.

“I want people to understand that is the process,” Governor Green said in a recent video update. “Slow healing so that in November, December, when more people come back, we all can survive and care for our families.”

School is back in session for Lahaina’s youngest, but nearly every other aspect of life in the community is shaky. Residents wonder when they’ll be able to move to the long-term housing the government promises and, ultimately, how their treasured home will be rebuilt, a future that is years away.

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