When Should Visitors Return to Maui?

The government of Maui is not discouraging visitors from going to the rainforest on the east side of Maui, which is several hours from fire-stricken Lahaina. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Maui residents are still in shock from the fire that destroyed almost all of the small, lovely and immensely charming city of Lahaina. They don’t want to think about tourism right now, and I don’t blame them.

But, at some point, tourists will return. At some point, tourists should return.

But when is the right time? Is it September? Early October? U.S. Thanksgiving?

The government of Hawai'i has strongly advised visitors from going to West Maui, which includes Napili Beach. Most hotels there aren't accepting guests at this stage. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The answer to that depends a lot on the individual. I know I couldn’t possibly go for a while, but I’m thinking I should probably visit in the next few months and spend a few dollars in local restaurants and attractions to help workers in the tourism industry. This is especially important on an island where tourism accounts for something like 75% of the Gross Domestic Product.

I also don’t think I could go without spending a day volunteering to help fire victims in some way, or helping with Lahaina restoration.

It's hard to know what the right thing is to do.

Some locals insist it’s not the time to visit Maui. Maui County has issued an an advisory that “strongly discourages” visits to West Maui and the Lahaina region through the end of August.

Paris Hilton was ridiculed on social media for parading around Wailea, Maui and swimming in the surf, seemingly oblivious to the carnage on West Maui. Some said she was also doing charity work, but the idea of celebrities sunning themselves on a beach that’s a mere 40 minutes from one of the largest disasters in U.S. history doesn’t go over well with most local residents.

The BBC reports that actor (Aquaman) Jason Momoa, a native Hawaiian, said on his Instagram account that it's not the time to visit.

Lahaina before the fires destroyed almost all of the city. JIM BYERS PHOTO

"Maui is not the place to have your vacation right now. Do not travel," he said. "Do not convince yourself that your presence is needed on an island that is suffering this deeply."

More than 100 people are confirmed dead in fires that destroyed the city of Lahaina and other parts of Maui.

The BBC said Momoa also shared a video in which he said that the Hawaiian community "needs time to heal, grieve and restore".

According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper, Hawai’i Governor Josh Green said on Saturday that tourists only needed to stay away from West Maui. Green said South Maui resorts, such as the Fairmont Kea Lani, Four Seasons Maui and Hyatt Andaz, and the South Maui tourism region remains open (that includes Kihei and Wailea; very popular with Americans and Canadians).

The governor said visitors are needed to sustain local jobs there. Presumably that goes for other areas of the island, including Wailuku, Paia and Hana.

“We are asking that all of West Maui be used for local people,” Green said. “There is some need in other parts of the island to keep hotels going because our local people are working there so we are doing that for local people so they don’t lose their jobs, so hotels don’t pull out.”

“South Maui is open. Kihei, Wailea is open,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said at a Saturday media conference, according to KITV News. “Maui is not closed. West Maui is under contamination in certain areas and we're trying to prevent people from going back there.”

“We encourage any visitors wanting to travel to Maui to be respectful,” said Susan Webb, president of VoX International in Toronto, which handles Hawai’i tourism promotion in Canada. “We also want to remind the industry that the rest of Hawai’i is open for business and that many hotels in Maui are still accepting tourists.

“Mahalo (thank you) to the Canadian travel industry’s outpouring of support for the people of Maui. It has been inspirational,” Webb said in an August 16 email. “We encourage anyone that wants to help to donate to the charities supporting the local community of Maui. #Mauistrong.”

Denise Ambrusko-Maida, owner of Travel Brilliant, a Buffalo-based travel agency, told The Washington Post she is not sending clients to any of the Hawaiian islands for the near-term. She does not want to siphon off resources needed for emergency operations or displaced residents.

“We don’t want to overstress their system, especially O’ahu,” she said.

Lahaina at night before the fires destroyed virtually the entire city. Hawaii Tourism Authority Photo

The Four Seasons Maui resort, which is in the Wailea district and roughly 40 minutes from Lahaina, said on its Twitter feed on August 9 that people should stay away for now.

“Our hearts go out to all those impacted and in support, all non-essential travel to Maui is strongly discouraged at this time,” the resort said.

Keith Vieira, principal of KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser that most West Maui hotels (hotels in the Ka’anapali, Kahana, Napili and Kapalua areas weren’t touched by the fires) had their power restored on the weekend.

“We are taking reservations for the future, but not for the next two weeks,” he said. “We are focused on housing employees, residents and state, federal and emergency workers.” said visitors should avoid the island in August. For September it suggested a wait and see approach, and then it recommended visits in October. “We’ll need your support. Please don’t cancel.”

Toni Marie Davis, executive director for the Activities and Attractions Association of Hawaii, told the Star Advertiser that roughly one-third of the association’s Maui members sustained damage or catastrophic losses, and now the others are sustaining losses due to cancellations.

“Clarity is really important. It would really help if we could select some reopening dates,“ Davis said. “But we understand that this is going to be a marathon recovery — it won’t be fast.”

AccuWeather has said the impact of the fires could be $10 billion USD on all the islands. That’s more than 50% of the roughly $19.29 billion in visitor spending that was collected last year, the Star Advertiser reports.

If you had plans to visit Maui and want to get a refund or change your ticket, both of Canada’s main airlines have flexible policies in place, at least for now.

Air Canada sent a note on Monday to say it “has a flexible goodwill policy for passengers to change or cancel their flights to Maui. Options include changing flights from Maui to Honolulu, changing Maui flights to a future date, or cancelling Maui flights for an Air Canada travel voucher which can be applied to other destinations, or a refund to their original form of payment on request.

WestJet officials have said they have flexible change/cancel guidelines for guests flying to Maui up until 31AUG.

How to Help Now

The Hawai’I Tourism Authority says vacation rental owners, as well as anyone with available space, are encouraged to make these accommodations available to temporarily house displaced West Maui residents. The state has set up a referral program to make those connections possible to support West Maui residents in need of housing. Learn more, offer your space, or look for housing at the Fire Relief Housing Program website. A call center is also available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at 808-587-0469, or email has also announced an initiative to provide free, temporary stays to 1,000 people through its network of hosts. Details of that program will be announced in the coming days.

One charity you can support that has strong ties to the community is the Maui Food Bank.

The Hawai’i Community Foundation is another charity you could help.

Jim Byers

Jim Byers is a freelance travel writer based in Toronto. He was formerly travel editor at the Toronto Star and now writes for a variety of publications in Canada and around the world. He's also a regular guest on CBC, CTV News, Global News and other television and radio networks.

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