- Two weeks ago, deadly fires ravaged Maui, leaving behind physical and economic devastation.
- Now, businesses say they need tourism to stay afloat and keep their workers employed.
- But there’s a tricky fine line between economy-sustaining tourism and a strain on local resources.
While the fires in Maui were still burning, Garrett Marrero flew into action.
He delivered prescriptions and supplies to Lahaina, the most affected community in West Maui. He opened a community kitchen, raised funds for charity, and set up donation centers.
But he wasn’t serving tourists at the brick-and-mortar Lahaina locations of his establishment Maui Brewing Company, which Marrero says typically gets as much as 70% of its in-person sales from tourists. He told Insider if there wasn’t a quick return of tourism to Maui, the company might be forced to do layoffs.
Kyle Kawakami, the chef and owner of Maui Fresh Streatery, said he lost weeks of catering business from weddings and corporate events. He said one client who canceled a golf tournament still paid the bill so Kawakami could feed 350 hot meals to locals in need.
That’s just one example of how well-meaning visitors can keep money flowing on the island without physically coming and help in Maui’s recovery from fires that have killed at least 115 people with nearly 400 still unaccounted for as of Friday. Kawakami said in the short term, though, local businesses need visitors to come back.
Hawaii’s economy relies on tourism. As opposed to the last time an unforeseen disaster — the pandemic — forced the planes to stop coming, Hawaiian businesses won’t be receiving PPP-type loans from the federal government to get them through. Even with millions in federal money pouring in, there probably won’t be another pandemic-level government response — such as one that provides beefed-up unemployment benefits or forgivable business loans — again.
“COVID has shown us that you can hit pause; the federal government can give forgivable loans to the small businesses, it can provide direct relief for workers so we’re not forced to make this choice,” Kaniela Ing, the national director of the Green New Deal Network and a seventh-generation Indigenous Hawaiian from Maui, said.
But right now, local businesses need tourists in the short run to survive, and some told Insider that residents urging tourists to stay away were misguided.
“I think there was a very irresponsible, very small minority, with very loud microphones popping off about Maui is closed,” Marrero said. “Maui is not and has not ever been closed since the pandemic and at least through this crisis, so we encourage responsible tourism coming here to serve the community and to stay out of West Maui for the time being.”
It points to a key tension in the island’s recovery: Too many tourists too soon could put a strain on local resources, but a lack of visitors could also cripple the local economy further.
“Short-term, we need visitors to come to help drive our economy right now, to keep people working, keep people employed, keep businesses like myself and other small businesses alive,” Kawakami said. He added: “There’s so much more than just economics and tourism. You have to really look at culture and what was before, and what did it turn into, and water rights, and community.”
What locals say relief should look like
On Thursday, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said on Twitter that South Maui resorts “NEED visitors,” adding “now we have housed virtually everyone, temporarily.” Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii on Tuesday said that visitors should continue to visit the island but avoid West Maui where search and rescue efforts were still underway.
“When you come, you will support our local economy and help speed the recovery of the people that are suffering right now,” Green said.
About 70% of every dollar for the County of Maui is generated by the tourism industry, according to the Maui Economic Development Board. The industry also accounts for 75% of Maui’s private-sector jobs, particularly in accommodation and food services. The visitor industry “is irrefutably the ‘economic engine’ for the County of Maui,” the Board says.
Still, a government poll from May and June of this year found around two-thirds of Hawaii’s residents thought their island was “being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”
“On one hand,” Ing said, businesses across Maui “have historically been dependent on revenue from tourists and will struggle to stay afloat without planes landing here. On the other hand, there are still thousands of survivors sleeping on cots, in tents, on gym floors, in homes of families who could barely afford to even take care of their own children, and we need the hotel rooms to house them immediately.”
Julia Tallman, a Maui-based restaurateur in the process of opening a new restaurant, said that the floodgates on tourism shouldn’t open, but it should be a more measured return.
“It’s such a fine line between making sure all the local residents’ needs are met first, and then when we can truly address that — okay, everyone’s taken care of, they have a bed, they have a car — now, how much tourists can the island handle?”
Leonard Junya Nakoa, a Lahaina activist, told Insider Lahaina was not ready for tourism. But he also didn’t want another situation like the outbreak of COVID-19 in which the island shuts down completely. He would say right now Maui is “partly closed.”
When the fire started, his daughter was briefly unreachable, and her house burned down. Once he knew his daughter was safe and sound, he started putting together distribution hubs to help support families opening up their homes to displaced residents, providing everything from camping gear to medicine.
“It was through the efforts of local community, not the government,” Nakoa said. And that’s what rebuilding and recovery should look like, he added: “Community-driven, funded by the government.”
Tallman helped with a nonprofit that started sending out thousands of meals a day after grocery stores became inaccessible and food was hard to find. She’s now working with another nonprofit focused on preparing meal kits so residents can start cooking at home.
Tallman says as the weeks have gone on, she’s realized her restaurant needs to open so it can provide jobs. She’s worried about an economic collapse, with people losing their homes and jobs across the island.
Ideally, a short-term solution toward recovery would be financial assistance, she said. She pointed to the pandemic-era Hawaii Restaurant Card Program as one potential model; under that initiative, Hawaiians who received unemployment benefits got $500-preloaded debit cards that could be used at local restaurants and businesses.
Kawakami said the rebuilding process should start with those who trace their roots back hundreds of years. With limited freshwater, for example, Indigenous Hawaiians should be at the center of discussions of whether that water should go toward agriculture or new developments, he said.
“I do believe personally, we will still need to look at tourism, but we like to use the term responsible tourism now in how we market our resources and our community,” Kawakami said. “I think what we’re looking for is a visitor that is more socially aware and actively aware of the community culture so that when people come out here, it’s not Disneyland.”