While search-and-rescue teams search for victims of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, tourists enjoy Maui’s tropical beaches.
In the historic resort town of Lahaina, the death toll has passed 100 and is rising every day as tourists enjoy holiday activities like snorkeling.
The Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa called on tourists to cancel their trips on Instagram, saying that the community needs time to heal, grieve, and restore.
As a result of the trickle of travelers, authorities and businesses say the island’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, will be less affected. Maui’s “economic engine” generates 80% of its wealth, according to its economic development board.
Maui is undergoing a long, painful recovery from the fires, and officials are balancing residents’ immediate needs for housing and resources with the island’s long-term finances.
In a weekend press conference, Hawaii Governor Josh Green recalled how the COVID-19 pandemic similarly forced the state to weigh the risks of allowing tourists into the state against the harm it would suffer.
“All of our people need to survive, and we cannot afford to have no jobs for our children,” Green said. “When you restrict travel to a region, you really devastate its own residents in many ways.”
Lahaina, a popular vacation destination and home to historic sites important to Hawaiians, has taken a hit in the week since the wildfire devastated the area.
Airline passengers to Maui on Sunday were down nearly 81% compared to the same time last year, according to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 2.9 million tourists visited Maui in 2022. The state tourism department reports that visitors spent $5.69 billion on Maui.
Hawaii Tourism Authority is now urging visitors to avoid all non-essential travel to West Maui, the part of the island affected by the fires.
Tourism authorities report that the hotels in West Maui have temporarily stopped accepting bookings. Many are housing their employees and preparing to house evacuees and first-responders.
Visitors to areas of Maui that did not burn – such as Kahului, Wailuku, Kihei, Wailea and Makena – should contact their accommodations to ensure they can still stay.
“Maui is not closed,” Mayor Richard Bissen said at the weekend press conference alongside the governor. “Many of our residents make their living from tourism.”
When reached by phone on Tuesday, the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea Beach in South Maui said all hotel operations were running normally, but that tourists with August reservations should postpone travel until the rest of the island had fully recovered.
A front desk operator said the hotel’s occupancy had plummeted “dramatically” since the fire.
Hilton Worldwide Holdings is waiving cancellation penalties for travelers to, from, or through all islands of Hawaii through Aug. 31.
During the fires, Pleasant Holidays CEO Jack Richards was scrambling to evacuate more than 400 customers on Maui due to dead phone lines and lost internet connections.
Other 1,400 customers with August travel plans to Maui must be rebooked, he said.
There was a flood of criticism directed at tour operators who continued to operate in West Maui after the fires.
In response to a charity snorkeling tour held 11 miles (18 km) from Lahaina on Friday, a company apologized and announced it was suspending operations.
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