Tourists Were Told to Stay Away in the Wake of the Maui Fire. Locals Want Them to Return.

In the immediate aftermath of the Maui wildfires, government officials told people that one of the best ways to help—along with donating to relief efforts—was for tourists to stop visiting the island. Now, almost a month later, locals are asking travelers to come back.

Maui is highly dependent on tourism to keep its economy afloat, and without the usual numbers of visitors, the island is now struggling, The New York Times reported on Friday. About 4,250 fewer tourists are showing up each day, resulting in a loss of $9 million a day. And in places like South Maui (the fires mainly impacted West Maui), hotels that are used to having just two in 10 empty hotel rooms during more normal times are seeing seven in 10 unused rooms.

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“The south side of Maui is wide open,” Jerry Gibson, the president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, told the Times. “Tragically, right now, because of the earlier message, tourism is not coming in there.”

Across Maui, beaches are empty, rental cars are sitting unused, and flights are arriving half full. The lack of travelers was at first encouraged by officials, who wanted to make sure that housing and other resources could go to residents of the island who had been affected by the fires. But since then, many have walked back their earlier comments, as they’ve seen the toll they have taken on the island’s economy and those who live and work there.

At some hotels, for example, staffers are being sent home because there’s not enough work—meaning they’re also not receiving a paycheck. One line cook at the Grand Wailea resort in South Maui told The New York Times that he had been called in for just two shifts in the past two weeks. And Annie Mullen, an employee at a usually busy pizza shop on the North Shore, said that business had functionally stopped since the fires.

“It’s really hard to navigate the grief and the shock of what horrific event just took place, but then also to have to feel selfishly worried about finances at the same time,” Mullen said.

In total, more than 5,300 people on Maui filed unemployment claims in the first two weeks after the fires, according to state data cited by the Times. That number is closer to 120 in typical weeks.

Over the years, the relationship between Maui locals and tourists has been one of push and pull. Even now, as many locals ask visitors to return, they hope that they remain sensitive to the realities of the island, where many people knew those who died in the fires or may have lost their home themselves. But they also realize that tourists are essential for Maui to rebuild.

“So visit,” said Chris West, the president of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which also represents employees in the tourism industry. “But be respectful, and we can coexist.”

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