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Maui’s economy needs tourists. Can they visit without compounding wildfire trauma?

Dec 29, 2023, 11:56 AM

Tourists get off of a Trilogy Excursions boat arriving on Kaanapali Beach in front of a flag of Haw...

Tourists get off of a Trilogy Excursions boat arriving on Kaanapali Beach in front of a flag of Hawaii planted in the sand, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Residents and survivors still dealing with the aftermath of the August wildfires in Lahaina have mixed feelings as tourists begin to return to the west side of Maui. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — The restaurant where Katie Austin was a server burned in the wildfire that devastated Hawaii’s historic town of Lahaina this summer.

Two months later, as travelers began to trickle back to nearby beach resorts, she went to work at a different eatery. But she soon quit, worn down by constant questions from diners: Was she affected by the fire? Did she know anyone who died?

“You’re at work for eight hours and every 15 minutes you have a new stranger ask you about the most traumatic day of your life,” Austin said. “It was soul-sucking.”

Hawaii’s governor and mayor invited tourists back to the west side of Maui months after the Aug. 8 fire killed at least 100 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings. They wanted the economic boost tourists would bring, particularly heading into the year-end holidays.

But some residents are struggling with the return of an industry requiring workers to be attentive and hospitable even though they are trying to care for themselves after losing their loved ones, friends, homes and community.

Maui is a large island. Many parts, like the ritzy resorts in Wailea, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Lahaina — where the first season of the HBO hit “The White Lotus” was filmed — are eagerly welcoming travelers and their dollars.

Things are more complicated in west Maui. Lahaina is still a mess of charred rubble. Efforts to clean up toxic debris are painstakingly slow. It’s off-limits to everyone except residents.

Tensions are peaking over the lack of long-term, affordable housing for wildfire evacuees, many of whom work in tourism. Dozens have been camping out in protest around the clock on a popular tourist beach at Kaanapali, a few miles north of Lahaina. Last week, hundreds marched between two large hotels waving signs reading, “We need housing now!” and “Short-term rentals gotta go!”

Hotels at Kaanapali are still housing about 6,000 fire evacuees unable to find long-term shelter in Maui’s tight and expensive housing market. But some have started to bring back tourists, and owners of timeshare condos have returned. At a shopping mall, visitors stroll past shops and dine at at open-air oceanfront restaurants.

Austin took a job at a restaurant in Kaanapali after the fire, but quit after five weeks. It was a strain to serve mai tais to people staying in a hotel or vacation rental while her friends were leaving the island because they lacked housing, she said.

Servers and many others in the tourism industry often work for tips, which puts them in a difficult position when a customer prods them with questions they don’t want to answer. Even after Austin’s restaurant posted a sign asking customers to respect employees’ privacy, the queries continued.

“I started telling people, ‘Unless you’re a therapist, I don’t want to talk to you about it,’” she said.

Austin now plans to work for a nonprofit organization that advocates for housing.

Erin Kelley didn’t lose her home or workplace but has been laid off as a bartender at Sheraton Maui Resort since the fire. The hotel reopened to visitors in late December, but she doesn’t expect to get called back to work until business picks up.

She has mixed feelings. Workers should have a place to live before tourists are welcome in west Maui, she said, but residents are so dependent on the industry that many will remain jobless without those same visitors.

“I’m really sad for friends and empathetic towards their situation,” she said. “But we also need to make money,”

When she does return to work, Kelley said she won’t want to “talk about anything that happened for the past few months.”

More travel destinations will likely have to navigate these dilemmas as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

There is no manual for doing so, said Chekitan Dev, a tourism professor at Cornell University. Handling disasters — natural and manmade — will have to be part of their business planning.

Andreas Neef, a development professor and tourism researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, suggested one solution might be to promote organized “voluntourism.” Instead of sunbathing, tourists could visit part of west Maui that didn’t burn and enlist in an effort to help the community.

“Bringing tourists for relaxation back is just at this time a little bit unrealistic,” Neef said. “I couldn’t imagine relaxing in a place where you still feel the trauma that has affected the place overall.”

Many travelers have been canceling holiday trips to Maui out of respect, said Lisa Paulson, the executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association. Visitation is down about 20% from December of 2022, according to state data.

Cancellations are affecting hotels all over the island, not just in west Maui.

Paulson attributes some of this to confusing messages in national and social media about whether visitors should come. Many people don’t understand the island’s geography or that there are places people can visit outside west Maui, she said.

One way visitors can help is to remember they’re traveling to a place that recently experienced significant trauma, said Amory Mowrey, the executive director of Maui Recovery, a mental health and substance abuse residential treatment center.

“Am I being driven by compassion and empathy or am I just here to take, take, take?” he said.

That’s the approach honeymooners Jordan and Carter Prechel of Phoenix adopted. They kept their reservations in Kihei, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Lahaina, vowing to be respectful and to support local businesses.

“Don’t bombard them with questions,” Jordan said recently while eating an afternoon snack in Kaanapali with her husband. “Be conscious of what they’ve gone through.”

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Maui’s economy needs tourists. Can they visit without compounding wildfire trauma?