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Maui Encourages Tourism to Fight Against Economic Decline from Wildfires

(Image from Axios).


State tourism officials, after initially urging travellers to stay away back in late August of this year, are now urging tourists to return, avoid the burn zone, and help Maui recover by spending their money. Airlines have started offering steep discounts, while some resorts have slashed room rates by 20%, or are offering a fifth night free (AP News, 2023).


This new approach has come after intense wildfires, perhaps the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s history, began after midnight on Tuesday, August 8th in the Hawaiian Islands of Maui and Big Island, with the historic town of Lahaina – on Maui – considered to be one of the worst-hit areas. According to the Pacific Disaster Centre, the fire has torched more than 2,142 structures, burned 2,100 acres, over 9,000 homeless/displaced, and has killed at least 115 people (PDC, 2023). The loss will likely require many years and billions of dollars to rebuild, and has led to contention over how Maui should handle tourism amidst the rebuilding efforts, particularly with the Maui Economic Development Board explaining how tourism is “irrefutably” the economic engine of Maui (Maui Economic Development Board, 2023).


“I know what a terrible disaster that was. But now we’re in crisis mode,” Air Maui’s director of operations, Olsten, stated. “If we can’t keep the people that have jobs employed, how are they going to help family members and friends that lost everything?” (AP News, 2023).


The number of visitors arriving on Maui sank about 70% after the August 8th fire, down to 2,000 a day (AP News, 2023). Olsten’s Air Maui Helicopters now operates one or two flights a day, compared with 25 to 30 before the fires (AP News, 2023). Olsten stated that his company has laid off seven of its 12 dispatchers. Pilots have been spared because they only get paid when they work. Typically, they fly eight times a day, four to five days a week. That has fallen to one day a week, and only one or two flights (AP News, 2023).


Many Maui hotels are housing federal aid workers and Lahaina residents who lost their homes. Even so, only half of the available hotel rooms are occupied, declared Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association. Even those in South Maui, 30 miles south of Lahaina, are half empty.


Hali’imaile General Store, one of Maui’s most popular and well-respected restaurants, laid off about 30 workers and temporarily closed after business shrank to one-tenth of pre-fire levels. The owners, Graeme and Mara Swain, had to cut staff to preserve cash and spare Hali’imaile the fate of closing. “It takes a lot of soul-searching of what’s the right thing to do to protect that place,” Swain stated, who plans to hire everyone back (AP News, 2023). He aims to reopen next month. 


These mass layoffs are not only affecting Hali’imaile General Store or Air Maui, as nearly 8,000 people filed for unemployment on Maui during the last three weeks of August, compared with 295 during the same period in 2022 (AP News, 2023). University of Hawaii economists expect Maui’s jobless rate to climb as high as 10%. This percentage has not been since the Covid-19 pandemic, when it peaked at 35%. However, in July 2022, this rate was just 2.5% compared to this year’s 10%, and there are no government loans for affected businesses like there were during the pandemic. 


Alongside the effects of the wildfire deterring tourism, another reason why visitor traffic has plunged is because Hawaii’s leaders, joined by Hollywood celebrities, told travellers to vacate the island. The day after the fire, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, a quasi-state agency, advised that visitors on “non-essential travel are being asked to leave Maui” and that “non-essential travel to Maui is strongly discouraged” (Hawaii Tourism Authority, 2023). The agency said the community needed to focus on recovery and helping those who had to evacuate. 


However, this message has changed, and Mayor Richard Bissen stated in a recent interview that “Maui’s not closed” (ABC News, 2023). People should not go to Lahaina or the surrounding West Maui area that has been affected by the wildfires, but the rest of Maui needs tourists. Some have adopted the motto, “Respect the West, visit the rest”, in their new attempts to encourage tourism back into the area.


The Hawaii Tourism Authority drafted and publicised a map showing Lahaina and West Maui in relation to the rest of the island, highlighting just how much was still open (Hawaii Tourism Authority, 2023). The authority is also launching a $2.6 million marketing plan to lure tourists back. 


Travel to areas outside West Maui should return to pre-fire levels by the end of November, predicted economics professor Car Bonham. Governor Josh Green told a meeting of the state Council on Revenues that he expects authorities to reopen most of West Maui to travellers on October 8, with the exception of fire-damaged neighbourhoods.


The disaster prompted state officials on 6th September to lower their 2023 economic growth prediction for the entire state to 1.1%, down from 1.8% (WRBL, 2023). Bonham estimated the fires would depress state tax revenues by $250 million this fiscal year, but said he was “encouraged” by the plan to reopen West Maui in one month (AP News, 2023).


The horrific wildfires have been detrimental to Maui and Long Island, displacing, hurting, and killing many locals, and causing disastrous consequences to the local economy. This new stance on encouraging tourism in areas unaffected by the wildfires is Hawaii’s new plan of attack to reinvigorate the heavy losses against the economy, and to use this income to stabilise the country again. 

Edited by: Shahnawaz Chodhry

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