In August, wildfires catastrophically destroyed Lahaina town and brought a sense of brokenness and heartbreak that was felt across the Hawaiian Islands. Tourist bookings were canceled. Visitors already on the island were flown back out to Oahu and other Hawaiian islands, and for a week or two, locals took to social media asking tourists to stay home or go elsewhere.
During that initial time of grieving, visitors weren’t needed–and in some cases, they weren’t able to be supported, simply because so many locals (and later, aid workers) were displaced into local hotels.
But now, over a month later, there’s a different plea going out: Please come back.
Of course, many are still grieving a profound loss, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Lahaina Town is gone. But Maui itself is struggling even more because of a lack of tourists. Family-run businesses, short-term rentals, and tour companies are hardly getting any business at all. The result? The devastation from the fire extends well beyond those who were directly affected. Now other families and businesses who were spared by the fire are also struggling to make ends meet, and they’re forced to make hard decisions about how to keep their business open.
Maui typically welcomes upward of 3 million visitors each year, and their primary industry is tourism. Visitors come from far and wide to appreciate the incomparable natural beauty that surprises you from around practically every turn. As one Maui local noted in an interview with NPR, “Seven hundred and thirty square miles of beauty isn’t burned.” It’s still there to be enjoyed, as are the many hotels, restaurants, and rental facilities on the rest of Maui.
Yet most flights both in and out of the island are empty–except for aid workers and journalists. The few vacationers that are there report feeling a little iffy about going; they know that the island is grieving, and they aren’t sure how welcome they are.
If only they knew how essential their presence is! In a local paper published on the larger neighboring island of Oahu, an article pleading with tourists to return tugs on the heartstrings. “Things are going to be dire soon if travelers don’t return quickly,” one woman said in Honolulu’s Civil Beat article. “What’s worse, we have the ability and resources to employ numerous people who have lost jobs due to the fire, but now there is not enough work to help our own family, let alone our neighbors.”
The sad fact is, that many locals who have lived on Maui for generations may be forced to leave the island if the tourist industry doesn’t pick back up very soon. After any disaster, it’s not uncommon for a mass exodus to occur, but it hits harder when it’s someone’s island home; not a place you can just drive back to visit.
So if you’ve been thinking about booking a Hawaii vacation, now is a great time to enjoy the natural beauty of Maui and help them out in a way that goes beyond fundraisers and tee-shirts. Go visit. Stay in the local hotels, book a tour (or two or three), and eat at a family-run restaurant that desperately needs your business. You’ll be enjoying the best parts of Hawaii’s culture, and you’ll be contributing to the rebuilding of an island that’s going to need help for a long while.
“We need responsible tourism and we need it yesterday,” said the manager of the Maui Brewing Company in the Honolulu Civil Beat article. He urges people to visit, shop local while there, tip employees well, and donate to local charities when possible. “If you’re thinking about coming and you’re wondering if it’s a good time, you’re already starting down the journey to being responsible.”
If you do visit, keep in mind that Lahaina Town is completely closed to access. Even locals who lived in Lahaina are facing difficulty in getting back into town to see what’s left because remediation and environmental damage control is going to take years to complete.
But there’s plenty to see outside of Lahaina, and you’ll find a warm, welcoming community that will be very happy to see you coming to enjoy the island once again.