Weeks after wildfires devastated parts of Maui and forced many travelers to put off trips, Hawaiian government officials are calling on tourists to return to the rest of the island.
The fires that broke out in early August were the deadliest in more than a century, with a death toll of 115 and counting as the recovery continues. The historic town of Lahaina was largely destroyed, while surrounding areas on the island's northwest coast including Napili, Kaanapali, and Kapalua were also damaged.
But Maui is a large island: Other popular spots like Kahului, Kihei, Wailea, Paia, Hana, and others were largely unaffected. After an initial caution to steer clear of Maui altogether in order to aid the evacuation and recovery efforts, state and local officials have been ramping up calls this week for visitors to return to other parts of Maui.
“Right now I want to speak to the world when I say this: All of the other areas of Maui friends are safe and open,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said while standing with President Joe Biden in Lahaina this week. “When you come you will support our local economy and help speed the recovery of the people who are suffering right now.”
Airlines have slashed many flights in and out of Maui (OGG) while issuing waivers that allow travelers with upcoming flights to change their plans for free – and that's exactly what they've done. Reuters reported last week that the number of arrivals was down roughly 80% compared to a year ago, citing data from the state's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
While overtourism has been a growing concern in Maui and the rest of the Hawaiian islands, the entire state's economy relies upon travelers from the mainland U.S. and beyond. With visitors staying away and hotels emptier than ever, layoffs within the hospitality industry have been rising – and unemployment claims have surged, the Hawaii Herald Tribune reports.
“South Maui resorts (Lahaina is West Maui) NEED visitors,” Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, posted on social media Thursday. “If you are planning a trip to Wailea or Kihei, don’t cancel. If you want to come to Hawaii pls consider South Maui.”
Hawaii officials have said tourism drives 80% of Maui's economy, and ensuring that doesn't take a prolonged hit is a difficult balance. State and local leaders are trying to thread the needle between honoring the victims of the tragic fires and giving local residents time to mourn while making clear that Maui needs travelers to return in order to fully recover.
“We encourage travelers to continue visiting other areas of Maui (including Kahului, Wailuku, Kīhei, Wailea, Mākena, Pāʻia and Hāna), as well as the other Hawaiian Islands,” the Hawaii Tourism Authority said in a statement. “We also urge visitors throughout Hawai‘i to be especially mindful and respectful in our island home as our community continues through this extremely difficult time.”