Maui's economy needs tourists. Can they visit without compounding wildfire trauma?

Maui's economy needs tourists. Can they visit without compounding wildfire trauma?

LAHAINA, Hawaii — The restaurant where Katie Austin served burned down during the wildfire that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina, Hawaii this summer.

Two months later, as travelers flocked back to nearby beach resorts, she took a job at another eatery. But she soon quit, exhausted by diners' constant questions: Was she affected by the fire? Did she know someone who had died?


“You're at work for eight hours and every 15 minutes you're asked by a new stranger about the most traumatic day of your life,” Austin said. “It was soul-sucking.”

Hawaii's governor and mayor invited tourists to return to Maui's west side, months after the Aug. 8 fire killed at least 100 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings. They wanted the economic boost that tourists would provide, especially in the run-up to the end-of-year holidays.

But some residents are struggling with the return of an industry that demands workers be attentive and hospitable even as they try to fend for themselves after losing their loved ones, friends, homes and communities.

Maui is a big island. Many parts, like the posh resorts in Wailea, 30 miles south of Lahaina — where the first season of the HBO hit “The White Lotus” was filmed — eagerly welcome travelers and their dollars.

In West Maui, things are more complicated. Lahaina is still a mess of charred rubble. Efforts to clean up toxic waste have been painfully slow. It is forbidden for everyone except residents.

Tensions are reaching a fever pitch over the lack of long-term affordable housing for wildfire evacuees, many of whom work in tourism. Dozens of people camped out all day in protest at a popular tourist beach in Kaanapali, a few miles north of Lahaina. Last week, a group marched between two major hotels, waving signs that read: “We need housing now!” and “Short-term rentals must go!”

Hotels in Kaanapali are still housing about 6,000 fire evacuees who cannot find long-term housing in Maui's tight and expensive housing market. But some have started bringing tourists back, and timeshare condo owners have returned. In a shopping center, visitors stroll past shops and dine at open-air restaurants by the ocean.

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Austin took a job at a restaurant in Kaanapali after the fire, but quit after five weeks. It was a challenge to serve mai tais to people staying in hotels or vacation rentals while her friends left the island because they had no housing, she said.

Servers and many others in the tourism industry often work for tips, which puts them in an awkward position when a customer pushes them with questions they don't want to answer. Even after the Austin restaurant posted a sign asking customers to respect employee privacy, the questions continued.

“I started telling people, 'Unless you're a therapist, I don't want to talk to you about it,'” she said.

Austin now plans to work for a nonprofit that advocates for housing.

Erin Kelley has not lost her home or workplace, but has been laid off from her job as a bartender at the Sheraton Maui Resort since the fire. The hotel reopened to visitors in late December, but she doesn't expect to be called back to work until business picks up.

She has mixed feelings. Workers need a place to live before tourists are welcome in West Maui, she said, but residents are so dependent on the industry that without those same visitors, many will remain unemployed.

“I'm really sad for friends and empathetic to their situation,” she said. 'But we also have to make money'

When she returns to work, Kelley said she “doesn't want to talk about everything that's happened over the last few months.”

More travel destinations are likely to face these dilemmas as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

There's no manual for doing this, says Chetikan Dev, a professor of tourism at Cornell University. Dealing with disasters – both natural and man-made – will have to be part of their business planning.

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Andreas Neef, a development professor and tourism researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, suggested that one solution could be to promote organized “voluntourism.” Instead of sunbathing, tourists could visit a part of West Maui that didn't burn and register in an effort to help the community.

“It is a bit unrealistic at the moment to bring tourists back for relaxation,” says Neef. “I couldn't imagine relaxing in a place where you still feel the trauma that affected the place in general.”

Many travelers have canceled their vacation trips to Maui out of respect, said Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association. According to state data, attendance has dropped 20% to 30% since mid-December of last year.

Cancellations are affecting hotels across the island, not just in West Maui.

Paulson attributes some of this to confusing messages in national and social media about whether visitors should come. Many people don't understand the geography of the island and that there are places people can visit outside of West Maui, she said.

One way visitors can help is to remember they are traveling to a place that has recently experienced significant trauma, says Amory Mowrey, executive director of Maui Recovery, a residential mental health and substance abuse treatment center.

“Am I driven by compassion and empathy or am I just here to take, take, take?” he said.

That's the approach newlyweds Jordan and Carter Pchelle of Phoenix took. They maintained their reservations in Kihei, about 25 miles south of Lahaina, and vowed to be respectful and support local businesses.

“Don't bombard them with questions,” Jordan said recently as she ate an afternoon snack with her husband in Kaanapali. “Be aware of what they have been through.”