As Maui rebuilds, residents count tourism’s role in their recovery

Long before the wind-whipped wildfires on Maui, there was tension among Hawaii’s kamaina, or longtime residents, and some islanders resented having their beaches, mountains and communities turned into playgrounds.

It’s a love-hate relationship that spans generations. But now the tension comes in the wake of a fire that killed more than 100 people and gutted the historic town of Lahaina, making it the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century.

A week after the fire, the state flag flew upside down in the wind along the road leading to the Native Hawaiian neighborhood, signaling a community in distress. Under the flag, a sign scrawled in blue paint ordered tourists to “KEEP OUT”.

“Tourism has definitely been a hindrance at this point because we have to focus on our families – our ohana,” said Kapali Keahi, who lives in the neighborhood. Those affected by the fire, including those still “coming out of survivor mode,” Keahi said.

The Maui Economic Development Council says tourism is “undeniably” Maui’s economic engine, seeing 1.4 million visitors in the first half of 2023 alone. According to the board, about 70% of every dollar generated on Maui can be attributed to tourism.

As the island tries to rebuild, residents like Keahi wonder what role tourism should play in the long road to recovery. Experts say there is no easy answer.

“There is a time when you have to stop everything and focus on the disaster, but there comes a time when you have to start rebuilding, and that means giving people jobs,” says Rafael Villanueva, a member of Tourism Expert. A network that provides consulting services to businesses such as hotels.

Villanueva said that was the general road map he and his then-colleagues at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau followed after the 2017 country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, the deadliest mass shooting in modern America. Support the victims and the community first, then worry about the tourists.

An hour after the shooting, which left 60 dead and hundreds injured, the state-funded agency that promotes Las Vegas pulled its ad, promising “What happens here, stays here.” Villanueva said they filled the billboards with a message the community could rally around instead: “Vegas Strong.”

They then opened their convention center for recovery efforts, including victim notifications. But eventually they changed their messaging, inviting visitors to the Strip, which they promised was a safe tourist destination.

“You have to do everything you can to not let the situation get worse,” Villanueva said.

In a statewide address Friday night, Hawaii Gov. Josh Greene said tourists should avoid fire-ravaged West Maui, but stressed that the island and the rest of the state are open and safe.

“We continue to welcome and encourage travel to our beautiful state,” he said, “which will support the local economy and accelerate the recovery of those already suffering so much.”

Green also said it would be “disastrous” if Maui’s tourism industry were to stop now, warning it could lead to a “mass exodus” of residents.

Maui resident Julie Sumibtay said she wants to escape, even if she understands how other locals want the place to grieve and deal with their deep pain without the eyes of outsiders.

“Some of us need jobs,” said Sumibtay, who works the front desk at a condominium complex in Kihei, where some units are used as vacation rentals. “So if they say Maui is closed, tourists don’t come and then we lose our jobs.”

The already deadly fire and its aftermath have prompted some tourists to change their plans and head to other islands instead.

Tom Bailey and his family from the Sacramento, California area arrived in Maui a week before the fire spread through the highlands and raced toward historic Lahaina.

They had seen the smoke up the road from Lahaina, not far from their hotel in Kaanapali. At first they were assured that there was no danger from the fire. But the glow of the fire grew stronger during the night, and hotel officials suggested that guests voluntarily evacuate.

Bailey and his family packed up to spend the last five days of their vacation on Oahu.

“We just wanted to stay out of the way,” Bailey said, adding that he understands local residents “need time.”

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