Two months after Maui’s devastating wildfire paused tourism on the island, conflicting advice from state tourism officials and Maui residents has clouded the future of tourism in Hawaii.

Last month, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green announced plans to reopen the areas affected by the fire beginning Oct. 8 and said supporting Maui’s economy would help its residents heal.

However, hundreds of West Maui residents spoke out in favor of keeping Lahaina closed during a county council meeting last week, according to The Guardian.

Maui fires and travel restrictions

On Aug. 4, a wildfire spread through the northwest coast of the island of Maui. As of Sept. 8, 115 people were reported dead as a result of the fire and 66 remained missing, according to a news release from Green’s office.

Green issued an order restricting nonessential travel to West Maui shortly after the fire broke out. While Lahaina and West Maui have remained closed since, the rest of the island has stayed open.

Faith and fear during the Maui wildfires
Aerial photos show devastation of Hawaii wildfires

On Sept. 8, Green announced that Lahaina and the other areas of Maui damaged by the fire would begin reopening on Oct. 8.

“Many have asked when it will be the right time to reopen West Maui to visitors,” he said in a news release. “There is no easy answer to this question, but I can say that if we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to be able to afford to live on Maui.”

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen unveiled a phased structure for the reopening. One section of Lahaina will open on Oct. 8, and other areas will reopen after assessments of the opened area have been completed.

The worrying decline of Maui’s economy

According to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the Maui fires and lack of tourism to the area created a significant negative impact on the local economy. The Associated Press reported a steep increase in unemployment rates in Maui after the fires, and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority estimated the cost of economic loss for West Maui at $9 million per day.

Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer for the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, told National Geographic that spending money on the island would help Maui’s economy.

“Maui has an economy, for better or worse, that right now is very dependent on visitor spending,” she said. “Shopping at local shops, eating at local restaurants that support local farmers, doing activities run by small local businesses — those dollars are directly supporting the residents; they are directly keeping local people employed.”

‘Too early for tourism’

For years, groups such as Nation of Hawai’i have campaigned for Hawaiian sovereignty and opposed the tourism industry in Hawaii. Āina Momona, an organization dedicated to achieving Hawaiian sovereignty, spoke out against the move to reopen Lahaina to tourism.

“Hawai`i’s dependence on tourism makes us fight for water while resorts are lush and green,” an Instagram post from the organization reads. “It makes our land, our people, and our livelihood vulnerable.”

Albert Perez, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, believes Hawaii’s dependence is unsustainable, per The Guardian.

“Every time they build another hotel room, the community becomes a little more dependent on those jobs,” he told The Guardian. “Then when that industry takes a hit, which it regularly does, we end up with an even worse economic crisis.”

Some Maui residents support tourism, but say they still aren’t ready to open the areas affected by the fire. More than 15,000 people signed a petition asking the governor to delay the opening of West Maui, and a group delivered the petition to the governor’s office after a news conference on Oct. 3.

“We are not mentally nor emotionally ready to welcome and serve our visitors. Not yet,” bartender Pa‘ele Kiakona said at the conference.

Know before you go

There is much debate over where in Hawaii tourists can go and whether tourists should visit at all. If you do decide to visit Maui, there are some general guidelines that everyone can agree on:

  • Support local businesses when possible.
  • Consider donating to local organizations that support Maui’s rebuilding efforts.
  • Do not visit areas that are closed to the public.
  • Wherever you go, be respectful.