How can tourists help Maui recover? Here’s what locals say.

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Maui recovery

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How Tourists Can Play a Vital Role in Maui’s Recovery: Insights from Locals

LiAnne Driessen’s life took a dramatic turn when wildfires, dubbed as the August 8 disaster, razed Lāhainā, a historic coastal town on Maui, and claimed the lives of at least 115 people. She moved into her grandparents’ home, the only surviving relic being a mango tree they had planted half a century ago. For Driessen, a Native Hawaiian, and a mother of two, the catastrophe struck twice. She now faces the threat of losing her family’s sailboat tour company, a Maui institution that has been in operation for 50 years. Before the fires, the company was thriving, hosting 80 to 90 snorkel and dinner sails per week. Overnight, it lost a staggering 80 percent of its business. Her husband, a first mate and captain-in-training, had to be laid off. Driessen reveals the stark reality, saying, “We’re barely hanging in there. It’s scary. We barely survived COVID.”

Maui, one of Hawaii’s most popular islands, is grappling with the aftermath of one of the deadliest wildfires in a century. According to the Hawaiʻi Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism, Maui typically welcomes around three million tourists each year, contributing an impressive $5.4 billion to the local economy. However, before the wildfires, a staggering 8,000 visitors arrived daily, but now, that number has dwindled to just 2,000.

Initially, there was an advisory urging travelers to stay away from West Maui, including Lāhainā, until October 17. Locals even took to social media, pleading with visitors to cancel their plans. Understandably, tourists heeded this warning, resulting in a severe economic downturn that has severely hampered Maui’s ability to recover.

The plea from lawmakers, tourism officials, businesses, and residents has now shifted from discouraging travel to encouraging it, but with mindfulness. As Wisa Miller, an employee at Aliʻi Kula Lavender, a 13.5-acre lavender farm, explains, “Our island is reliant upon tourism. We need resources to get back on our feet right now.”

However, traveling to Maui currently presents complications. It might seem insensitive to sip a mai tai by a hotel pool in Wailea, but every dollar spent by a visitor on the island is vital for its economy. Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer for the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, emphasizes that these dollars directly support local businesses and keep residents employed.

In the wake of the devastating wildfire, the economic impact is felt across the entire island. Restaurants have reduced their hours, some businesses have temporarily closed, and others have had to furlough their staff. According to Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce, the economic loss for West Maui alone is estimated at a staggering $9 million per day.

Graeme Swain, owner of the Gather Restaurant Group, has had to make painful decisions, including laying off about 80 percent of his staff. He articulates the urgency, stating, “if we don’t get people back here, we can’t survive.”

Maui is indeed open for visitors, but some areas, like Lāhainā, remain closed. It’s a plea from the community to respect these boundaries and allow the healing process to take its course. Meanwhile, other areas like Kīhei, Wailea, Pāiʻa, and Hāna are welcoming tourists. It’s a delicate balance of supporting the recovery while respecting the affected areas’ need for space and time to heal.

In this dire situation, Markus Schale, the managing director of the Hotel Wailea, Relais & Châteaux, emphasizes that visitors can genuinely help Maui by avoiding West Maui. It’s about making informed choices and contributing to the island’s recovery. Every little bit counts.

Despite the challenges, Maui residents assure visitors that the magic of Maui and its cherished aloha spirit remain intact. The message is clear: you can come, and your visit will make a difference.

How Tourists Can Make a Positive Impact

Here are some ways tourists can contribute to Maui’s recovery:

1. Give Back to the Community: Consider donating to organizations like the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation’s Maui Strong fund or the Maui Food Bank. You can also look for opportunities to volunteer during your vacation. Notably, part-time Maui residents Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson launched the People’s Fund of Maui, contributing an initial $10 million to support affected residents.

2. Buy Local: Whenever possible, shop at farmers’ markets and dine at local restaurants. Many businesses are contributing a portion of their proceeds to relief efforts, so check their websites and social media platforms for information. For example, Hotel Wailea donates $100 for every booking.

Tourism isn’t just about leisure; it’s about being a part of a community’s healing journey. So, as you plan your trip to Maui, remember that your presence and choices can be a beacon of hope for this resilient island.

Catherine Toth Fox is a food and travel writer and editor in Honolulu. Follow @catherinetothfox on social media.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Maui recovery

Q: What caused the economic downturn in Maui mentioned in the text?

A: The economic downturn in Maui was primarily caused by one of the deadliest wildfires in the United States, which ravaged the historic coastal town of Lāhainā, resulting in significant loss of life and property. This catastrophe led to a decline in tourism, one of Maui’s key economic drivers, as visitors initially heeded advisories to stay away from affected areas.

Q: How can tourists help with Maui’s recovery?

A: Tourists can play a vital role in Maui’s recovery by contributing to the community and supporting local businesses. They can donate to organizations like the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation’s Maui Strong fund or the Maui Food Bank. Additionally, buying local products, shopping at farmers’ markets, and dining at local restaurants that contribute to relief efforts can have a positive impact on the island’s recovery.

Q: Which areas of Maui are currently open to tourists?

A: While some areas, like Lāhainā and West Maui, remain closed to visitors due to the wildfire’s impact, other areas on Maui are open. Tourists can explore places like Kīhei, Wailea on Maui’s south shores, the artsy surf town of Pāiʻa on its north shore, and the charming and remote Hāna on the eastern shore, all of which are welcoming tourists.

Q: What are some specific ways tourists can support Maui’s recovery?

A: Tourists can support Maui’s recovery by donating to local relief organizations, volunteering during their vacation, and shopping at farmers’ markets. They should also seek out local restaurants and businesses that contribute a portion of their proceeds to relief efforts. Making informed choices and avoiding areas still in recovery, like Lāhainā, can also contribute positively to the island’s healing process.

Q: Why is it important for tourists to visit Maui mindfully?

A: Visiting Maui mindfully is crucial because it strikes a balance between supporting the island’s recovery and respecting the areas that are still healing. Being mindful of where to go and how to spend can help ensure that every tourist dollar directly benefits the community and helps local businesses and residents get back on their feet.

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