In West Maui, tourism returns to an island scarred by fire

LAHAINA, Hawaii - In Maalaea Harbor, Capt. Dani Kleinhenz stood on the bow of a 55-foot catamaran and greeted her passengers with an exuberant "Aloha!" In a race against the setting sun, she quickly launched into her pre-departure briefing. She shared the itinerary for the two-hour sail, described the drink specials and explained the inner workings of the onboard toilet. Then she paused, and her tone shifted.

"Thank you guys for coming out here and supporting us," said Kleinhenz, her voice tinged with emotion. "Please don't ask the crew about anything personal. It's still pretty fresh for us."

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Devastating wildfires swept through Lahaina on Aug. 8, killing nearly 100 residents, displacing thousands and destroying a vibrant community of homes, businesses and cultural touchstones. Two months later, on Oct. 8. a portion of West Maui reopened to tourists. Forty-eight hours later, Trilogy I, which had resumed tours a few weeks after the fires, set sail south of the burn zone. The mai-tai-sipping passengers included anniversary celebrants, a 21-year-old birthday girl and a pair of newlyweds.

"We're taking heed of the warnings and staying in the appropriate places," said Valerie Ramsey, a Californian on her honeymoon. "We definitely made this choice thoughtfully. We didn't want to be jerks."

In recent years, Maui has struggled with extremes in tourism. The issue forced the government, the travel industry and residents to rethink their relationship with Maui's main economic driver, which accounts for about 70 percent of every generated dollar. First, the island was inundated with tourists - a record nearly 3.1 million visitors in 2019, according to the state's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Locals implored tourists to stay away and urged officials to stop pushing Maui as a paradise destination.

The state's tourism authority had shifted its messaging to responsible travel with its Kuleana campaign when the coronavirus hit. In 2020, visitor numbers plunged to less than a million. This year, tourism was going strong - until the fires consumed Lahaina. The tragedy rekindled the tension between residents and tourists.

"We lost loved ones, we lost homes, we lost businesses. For places that tourists would have gone to, we lost infrastructure, power, water, sewer or internet," Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said a few days after he took the stage at the Maui Ukulele Festival, a benefit that coincided with the reopening. "There was obviously devastation that impacted a tourist's ability to enjoy certain areas. Hotels also became shelters and living places for our local community."

When Gov. Josh Green (D) announced the reopening date, a vocal contingent of islanders protested. They worried about vacationers inhabiting the same hotels as displaced residents and hospitality workers trying to put on a happy face while they grapple with grief.

"Everyone is so affected and traumatized by the fires that it's going to be very difficult to show that aloha spirit to tourists," said Paula Martinez, the volunteer coordinator at Hua Momona Farms who was housing friends. "I think a lot of people come here with the expectation that the people in Hawaii are so nice. They're so full of aloha. It won't be shown like it was before."

In a concession to these concerns, the mayor decided to open West Maui in phases, starting with the northern section from the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua to the Kahana Villa Resort in Kahana. The roughly three-mile stretch had initially lost power and communications but was otherwise unscathed.

Anne Landon, who is temporarily living at the Hyatt Regency in Kaanapali with her Jack Russell-fox terrier mix, Vida, supports the reopening. The clothing designer has 60 boxes of garments headed to Maui from Bali. She needs shoppers.

"I do not feel like it's too soon," Landon said between sips of coffee donated by VigiLatte, which set up shop in the hotel's parking lot. "I am not angry about tourists, but I think they are going to be upset because it's not their Maui anymore."

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The precipitous drop in visitors three years ago underscored Maui's heavy dependency on tourism. In the first eight months of this year, 1.9 million visitors spent $4.34 billion, a more than 10 percent bump from the same period last year and nearly 24 higher than 2019, according to state data.

But the absence of travelers was also revelatory. Residents could finally reclaim their island.

"What we found out during covid was that local people gave up a lot of their treasured spots [to tourists]," said Ekolu Lindsey III, president of Maui Cultural Lands, a nonprofit dedicated to cultural, archaeological and ecological preservation. "I was able to get to Kaanapali during covid and see not a single footprint on the beach. That is just unheard of."

Overtourism precipitated a number of inconveniences and hardships. Islanders had to contend with traffic jams, crowded beaches, environmental degradation and a dire housing crisis exacerbated by the short-term rental market. Lawmakers and locals have floated a variety of ideas to counter the negative impact, such as restricting Airbnbs and their ilk to hotel zones.

Some environmentalists are advocating for an annual "green fee" similar to the tax levied by Ecuador's Galapagos National Park and the Republic of Palau. Nonresidents would pay $50 to access state parks and trails in addition to any preexisting reservation or user fees. Legislators failed to advance the measure this year, but many remain hopeful that the bill will be revived.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has also been tackling the issue by collaborating with the islands on a destination management action plan. Each island devised its own strategy. Maui landed on regenerative tourism, a more muscular version of eco-tourism. Ideally, visitors will participate in cultural activities, shop at local businesses, protect the marine environment and volunteer - essentially, give back more than they take.

"People want to have a good time, but maybe for half the time they could plant trees in the mountains or clean up the beach or check out a coral farm," said Cord Munoz, whose surf repair shop did not survive the fire. "People build a real connection to this place through their experiences and the people and the culture. It's not like, 'Oh, I have a real connection to Cabo San Lucas because I drank all those tequilas and blacked out on the beach.' Maui is so much more than that."

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With one section open, two remain. The area from Mahinahina to Maui Kaanapali Villas is next, though some timeshare owners have already returned. The third and most sensitive phase covers the Kaanapali area, which includes the Royal Lahaina Resort to the Hyatt Regency, where thousands of displaced residents are living while they await a more permanent arrangement.

The mayor said he and his five-person Lahaina Advisory Team, which includes three members who lost their homes, will gauge the community's anxiety and the travel industry's needs before advancing to the next stage. "We want to see how the community can absorb having tourism coming back and how they handle it," Bissen said.

The return of Lahaina's historic district will require even more prudence and time. The former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom is sacred, especially among native Hawaiians. The monarchy ruled from Lahaina until 1845, when King Kamehameha III moved the royal court and residence to Honolulu. Around the same time, sugar cane planters started arriving. They drained Lahaina's coastal wetlands and redirected the water for their crops. The last sugar producer shuttered in 2016, leaving behind parched land.

"Lahaina is an old town," said Kleinhenz, the captain with Trilogy Excursions, whose casualties included a catamaran and the company's head office. "It was a tinderbox."

The government said the community will be involved in Lahaina's future. "Let me be clear, Lahaina belongs to its people, and we are committed to rebuilding and restoring it the way they want it," Green said the week after the fires. "The land in Lahaina is reserved for its people as they return and rebuild."

Different visions abound. Munoz, the small business owner, suggests restoring the water and rebuilding but with greater safety measures. Kleinhenz is against developing Front Street, to avoid future tragedies. The anonymous authors of signs posted near the burn site summed up their anti-outsider positions: "Lahaina is not for sale" and "Defend the Land."

Lindsey, whose deep roots in Lahaina included an ancestral home on Front Street, said he wants stricter zoning codes to discourage short-term rentals and mega-mansions; native plants to revitalize the land; and a cultural site at Moku'ula to honor the past.

"Lahaina has many microclimates of history," he said, "and we need to hold onto that history."

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No one anticipated a rush of tourists for the reopening, and they were right. According to state data, the island received nearly 4,000 domestic arrivals on Oct. 8, significantly less than the 6,457 visitors from the same day last year. Nor was anyone proclaiming "business as usual," because it wasn't.

At Kahului Airport, where hundreds of stranded tourists awaited evacuation during the fires, Maui Strong Fund billboards overshadow ads for tourist activities. Near baggage claim, a video reminds travelers to treat residents with kindness and to act responsibly by exploring unaffected areas, such as Hana and Wailea.

"I think it would help a visitor to view the video, so they can understand the respect we're asking them to show and the compassion for people," said Bissen. "Don't ask awkward questions like, 'Did you lose a home? Did you lose a loved one?' Be aware of your own conduct and your own actions and how you interact with someone who may have been impacted by what happened."

Local authorities and businesses are bolstering this message, especially after some earlier misconduct involving social media posts of the devastation. On the bypass road to the west side, boulders and police cars parked on the shoulder deter gawkers from stopping and snapping pictures. All access points to Lahaina Town are closed, and fencing along Honoapiilani Highway partially obscures views of the scorched terrain. Handmade signs - "Let Lahaina Heal" - serve as reminders to keep your eyes on the road.

"People going through the area - it's not okay to make it about social media and to take selfies," Kleinhenz said.

The hotels are also preparing visitors for a different kind of Hawaii vacation - one that is more subdued and thoughtful. At the Ritz Carleton, a board in the lobby entrance highlights charities accepting donations for their relief efforts. The recently opened Napili Kai Beach Resort sends guests an email with a list of operating businesses in West Maui and volunteer opportunities. At the check-in counter, a laminated card titled "Approach Conversations Mindfully" recommends offering "aloha and support" to staff and residents.

"We need time to grieve and heal, but another segment of the community says we need to get back to work," said Gregg Nelson, general manager of the Napili Kai Beach Resort. "I've had staff members - I'll choke up here a little bit - who've told me that this is their escape from the daily challenges they're facing."

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Every weekday morning in a former pineapple field in Kapalua, volunteers slip on white aprons and assemble around long tables at Hua Momona Farms. After the fires, the 25-acre farm shifted its focus from supplying local restaurants with microgreens to preparing 750 meals three times a week for displaced residents.

According to Green, about 6,800 people are living in 35 hotels throughout Maui. Some properties have guest rooms with kitchens; others are serving residents three meals a day in their restaurants. State and Maui County officials said they are committed to addressing the long-term housing needs of the survivors, but that takes time. So, the demand for meals is still strong.

"This isn't going to be a recovery overnight. Some [commercial] kitchens are already closing down because they're reopening for business," said Martinez, the farm's volunteer coordinator. "We want to provide meals and produce as long as we can, as long as there's a need."

Hua Momona is one of many businesses and organizations pitching in to help feed, clothe, entertain or care for the displaced residents and their children and pets. Maui Nui Strong is a key hub for volunteering. It features several distribution centers as well as the Maui Humane Society, where visitors can comfort cats rescued from the fire or take shelter dogs on a hike or beach outing. Hungry Heroes Hawaii is another vital resource.

On a recent Monday at the farm, seven volunteers and several staff members worked side-by-side chopping onions, washing kale, disassembling chicken and affixing labels to takeout containers. After the prep work was complete, the team moved inside a trailer with a full-service kitchen blasting classic rock.

Each person occupied a station - coconut rice, vegetable medley, chicken satay, peanut sauce, crispy toppings - along the assembly line. Cars drove up and loaded up hundreds of boxes of food.

After the last transport departed, the volunteers sat down for a meal shared among themselves and all of Lahaina.

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