Maui’s tourism recovery has been moving at a sluggish pace since the wildfires devastated the island’s western region in early August. One factor: Tourists have been slow to return out of sensitivity to locals.
In a September 8 press conference, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said West Maui would be open to tourists again on October 8, one month after the fire started. Only Lahaina – the area that took the most damage – will be closed off to the public.
“It’s going to be a slow coming back,” said Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association. “It’s not going to be this massive flood of guests like after the pandemic.”
The island is still healing from the wildfire. Over 100 people have died and more than 60 people remain missing. Since August 16, over 7,500 displaced survivors have been relocated to 29 hotels and hundreds of Airbnbs in Maui.
Many hotels have been under contract with the Red Cross to house the displaced, said Paulson. The contracts will end on September 29.
Hotels like Grand Wailea and Four Seasons Resorts Maui remain largely empty. “For every 1,000 units that we don’t have a guest in, it’s a potential loss of $30 million for local businesses throughout the island,” said Paulson.
Some travel businesses say it’s too soon to come back. Shane Tackett, chief financial officer and executive vice president of Alaska Air Group, shared his view at Morgan Stanley’s Laguna Conference on September 12.
”There’s a subset of people who are going to not want to take this aspirational vacation to a place that’s still suffering,” said Tackett. “We’re going to go at the pace that residents of Maui want to go, and we’ll serve the demand once we see it start to come back.”
Airlines have continued to cut flights. Since early August, the number of scheduled flights into and out of Maui for the full year has fallen from 7,144 to 7,040, according to Cirium. “Airlines have clearly cut their schedules in response to the Maui fires, with peak season winter capacity below summer levels this year,” said Skift’s Airline Weekly Senior Analyst Jay Shabat.
“The scheduled air seats are down for now through the end of the year,” said Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer of Hawaii Tourism Authority. “We know this will be a long recovery.”
Over 70% of every dollar in Maui County is directly or indirectly generated from tourism, according to the Maui Economic Development Tourism Board.
Tour operators have been cautious. G Adventures, which canceled its Maui trips in August, is considering October or even November to return, said vice president of product Yves Marceau. “It’s hard to say we’re going back when there’s just been this massive catastrophe, you have to kind of feel your way through it,” he said.
Tour operators are mindful of the needs of locals and their travelers. “We want to make sure we’re not taking resources from the destination,” said Marceau. “We don’t want our travelers to feel like we’re going back too early.”
Norwegian Cruise Line returned this month, an though an important statement, its contribution to Maui’s economy is minimal because cruise passengers are not big spenders when they stop by, according to Paulson.
Messaging that Tourists are Welcome Back
Hawaii tourism officials want to tell tourists that most of Maui is ready to welcome them. The Hawaii Tourism Authority launched a campaign on August 21 called Mālama Maui, which means “to protect, nurture and care for.” It will run through October 31.
The campaign aims to attract travelers to the accessible areas of Maui, which includes Kahului, Wailuku, Kīhei, Wailea, Mākena, Pāʻia, Makawao and Hāna, as well as the other Hawaiian Islands of Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Lānaʻi, Molokaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island.
“What we’re looking out for are those people who have not booked yet, making sure that they know that Maui is open, travel to the island is encouraged and that respectful, responsible and compassionate travel will help Maui recover,” said Gionson.
In the coming weeks, Maui locals and locations will be featured in videos and images shared through social media and advertising. “What’s really important and what we’ve prioritized is that the invitation to return needs to center Maui voices,” said Gionson.
Tourism Marketing Amid a Budget Battle
To pay for the campaign, the Hawaii Tourism Authority is using $2.6 million from the state’s $5 million tourism emergency fund. The funds became available to HTA when the governor declared a tourism emergency on August 18. This is the first time the tourism board is using the allocated fund, which will have to be replenished by the legislature in January.
Due to funding and autonomy cuts by the legislature, the agency had to resort to the emergency dollars. “During past emergencies, we had a marketing flexibility fund that could be deployed in times like this. That’s gone,” said Gionson.
In a new arrangement that started in July, agency spending has to be approved by the governor and legislators, both of whom want to reduce destination marketing. The agency was left out of the legislature’s state budget this year. In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers came close to passing a bill that dissolved the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The agency will have to navigate the Maui crisis without an active CEO at the helm. The outgoing CEO and president, John De Fries, has been publicly silent and instead “working on internal projects,” said Gionson. De Fries wills step down on September 15. Chief Administration Officer Daniel Nāho‘opi‘i is in transition to become interim president.
“We’re not actively searching for a new CEO at this time,” said Gionson. ”There are some larger conversations that the board and the legislature has to have about HTA’s governance structure.”
Gionson is confident that HTA’s efforts to restore tourism to Maui will demonstrate the agency’s value. “I think the effects of a downturn in tourism underscores the importance of the work HTA does to maintain travel demand to the Hawaiian Islands,” said Gionson.