Why Are Government Officials Encouraging Tourism to Maui Right Now?

"Maui is not closed."

A view of the destruction in Lahaina days the wildfire destroyed the town
A view of the destruction in Lahaina days the wildfire destroyed the town

In the event that you’ve been living under a rock this past week, you’re likely familiar with the situation in Maui at the moment. More specifically, the wildfires have devastated the historic port town of Lahaina, killing upwards of 100 people with hundreds more still missing.

At the urging of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, most visitors that were in Maui — or at least West Maui — at the time of the fires have left, with a whopping 46,000 departing out of Maui’s Kahului Airport since Wednesday. And rightfully so, as affected locals should not vie with tourists for available resources.

And this is why government officials now encouraging visitation to the island feels all the more off-putting. According to a new report from Travel Weekly, Maui County mayor Richard Bissen was explicitly clear in his message during a press conference held over the weekend: “South Maui is open. Kihei, Wailea is open. Maui is not closed.” 

“Please don’t go to the west side of Maui — to West Maui,” he said. “Obviously, there’s so much going on with trying to rebuild it. But the rest of Maui is still open…We’ve not shut down, we’ve not shipped anyone out, we’ve not asked anyone to leave. As far as tourism is concerned, that’s a major driver of our economy here.”

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Later, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green echoed that sentiment, adding, “The other consideration is all of our people will need to survive and can’t afford to have jobs or no future for our children. We wrestled with this during Covid and did a very good job, but we did have to balance the fact that when you restrict any travel to a region it’s really devastating to all the locals, in many ways more than to anyone else.”

It’s worth noting that Maui has a land area of 735 square miles. And it is true that tourism represents roughly a quarter of Hawaii’s economy. Further, it’s admittedly a little tricky to “call it like I see it” from 4,900 miles away. Even still, encouraging visitation in the immediate wake of such destruction feels a bit callous.

According to CBS News, the tourism sector has a pretty significant part to play in recovery efforts. About 500 hotel rooms have been made available, with 331 displaced residents already staying in those rooms, and the state has also set up an Airbnb program with 1,000 available rooms or houses that will be covered by FEMA for use by both evacuees and first responders. Per AFAR, Kahului Airport, for its part, remains open, but it’s been sheltering evacuees in addition to thousands of stranded travelers. It’s easy to see how an injection of any amount of tourists could complicate things.

And, if there’s any confusion as to residents’ position on the matter, just check social media. Viral pleas for help — monetary and otherwise — have been making the rounds for days now with locals calling on past visitors to Hawaii, specifically, to pitch in. They are noticeably not calling for visitation.


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