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Is History Repeating Itself in Maui’s Response to the Wildfires?
Just as with COVID-19, the government’s reaction to an emergency may have unintended consequences for local communities
By Will Hagen
In response to an unprecedented crisis, the government steps in and unilaterally declares an end to economic activity. It does so with little forethought and minimal consideration of the consequences for average citizens. Later, the government declares an arbitrary end date for its restrictions, but by that time, countless businesses have been adversely affected. Does this sound familiar to you?
The U.S. during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic? Yes.
The state of Hawaii during the immediate aftermath of the wildfires on Maui? Also yes.
The wildfires that devastated parts of the island of Maui, Hawaii, in August 2023 left scars that will undoubtedly take years to heal. They caused billions of dollars in damage, and nearly 100 people are confirmed to have lost their lives. This was a tragedy of massive proportions.
A Tale of Two Mauis
Despite the recent disaster, my family chose to travel to Maui this summer. We arrived about one month after the fires tore through Lahaina in West Maui and Kula in the island’s Upcountry region. We had been planning this trip for six months, and while the fires did change our plans somewhat, we felt strongly that we should still visit the island. We did this in part to support the local tourism industry, upon which Maui (and all of Hawaii) depends heavily. In fact, tourism accounts for approximately 21% of the state’s economy, but the number is an astounding 40% for Maui.
My family had been fortunate enough to travel to Maui once before, in the spring of 2022—long enough after the pandemic had subsided that the island’s tourism industry was once again thriving. Beaches were packed, hotels were at capacity and restaurants had lines around the block or were booking reservations six months in advance. However, we knew that traveling to Maui this time would be different.
We chose to stay in South Maui, in the town of Wailea. This put us about a 40-minute drive from Lahaina, where the worst devastation had occurred. When we arrived on Maui, there were few signs that anything was amiss. The trade winds still blew through postcard-perfect palm trees. The Pacific waves still came ashore on pristine white sand beaches in front of massive resort hotels. The tropical sun still shone through the occasional puff of cloud. The only difference was the lack of people. By one account, approximately seven in ten hotel rooms on Maui sat unoccupied in September, when that figure is normally about two in ten. Acres of normally open fields near the island’s main airport in Kahului are now full of thousands of rental cars collecting dust.
The Ka’anapali area, which sits adjacent to Lahaina but was almost entirely unaffected by the fires, is normally buzzing with activity. People crowd the beach looking for a small patch of sand to call their own for the day. Restaurants and shops are busy from early morning until late at night. Small businesses advertising sunset sails and snorkeling tours offer their services to tourists, who can step right from the beach to their boats. Today, by contrast, visitors have no trouble finding a spot on the nearly empty beach, the restaurants and shops are almost all closed, and those boats bob quietly at anchor, waiting for the tourists to return.
The question is: When will that be?
The few stores and restaurants that remain open are deserted, and workers are thrilled to see any and all customers. We were frequently greeted with “Thank you so much for coming in”—and it was clear the employees meant it. However, as long as tourists are encouraged to stay away, these businesses will have a tough time staying open.
How Much Closure Is Too Much?
Given the geography of Maui, the only way to access some parts of the island is to drive through Lahaina. Even from the Bypass Road around the center of town, Lahaina’s complete destruction is obvious. This small part of the island will (and should) be closed for some time as relief efforts and, eventually, rebuilding occur. The fire’s impact was so significant and so jarring that you can almost understand why the government chose to respond as it did: This was a horrific event that came suddenly and shocked everyone with its destructive force.
In the immediate aftermath of the fires, both Hawaii’s governor, Josh Green, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority asked visitors to leave Maui and strongly encouraged tourists to stay away. Even celebrities made clear to their social media followings that Maui should be off-limits.
The government later clarified that it was restricting travel only to West Maui, home to Lahaina and the resort towns of Ka’anapali, Napili and Kapalua. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the geography of Maui—a group that includes the vast majority of tourists—parsing what qualifies as “West Maui” and what doesn’t is not an easy task. When all people see on the news is that Maui has been devastated by wildfires, they understandably think that most or all of the island has been affected. Hence they can’t be blamed for canceling or changing their plans out of an abundance of caution.
Yes, the people of West Maui have suffered a terrible loss, but tourists have their own interests to watch out for, too. Their travel might be for a milestone anniversary, a reunion with old friends or a once-a-year break from work with the family. Given what the government and news are saying about the impact of the wildfires, why risk going now, when the trip can be rescheduled?
Unfortunately, as my family’s experience demonstrates, people are staying away from the entire island because of the lack of clear communication. This puts an unnecessary and potentially devastating hold on tourism. On September 8, one month after the fire, Governor Green announced that West Maui would fully reopen on October 8—two full months after closing. But why this late date, when the vast majority of Maui was ready and eager to welcome tourists back much earlier? The absence of most tourists has caused an estimated $11 million in lost economic activity every day. That means an astounding $650 million in lost economic activity for Maui—assuming travel immediately returns to pre-fire levels upon reopening, but it is too soon to tell. The more likely scenario is that a full recovery of the tourism sector will take months or longer.
The reality is that most visitors could still travel to Maui and have the trip of a lifetime. There are still plenty of hotels to stay at, miles of beautiful beaches to visit and an abundance of “aloha spirit” ready to welcome people. Further, the idea that West Maui was “closed” was never entirely accurate. Even before the official reopening on October 8, you could still travel to West Maui to shop or dine at the (very few) open stores and restaurants or spend time at the beaches. It was only the accommodations that were closed to tourists for a short time.
Further complicating matters, the Maui County Council has passed a resolution establishing a phased reopening of West Maui. The October 8 reopening, which would have allowed visitors to return to all areas of West Maui except Lahaina, has been superseded by the new reopening plan, which starts with hotels in the Kapalua area to the north. Phase 2 of the plan will reopen hotels further south, closer to Lahaina. Only in phase 3 will the bulk of hotels reopen, those in the Ka’anapali area closest to Lahaina. Before the reopening progresses from one phase to the next, county officials will conduct an “assessment” of the completed phase.
While this strategy gives the displaced residents staying in Ka’anapali-area hotels time to secure longer-term housing, these delays will also lead to further economic damage as hotels must continue waiting before welcoming tourists back.
From the tourists’ perspective, this phased reopening continues to create confusion and make planning extremely difficult. With holidays coming up, people planning to travel to Maui for a wintertime getaway are likely feeling unsure about their trips. The subjective nature of the phased reopening means that tourists hoping for accommodations in West Maui may or may not have a place to stay.
Many residents argue that reopening so soon will be a disservice to survivors and other locals. While reopening West Maui to tourism must be done in a respectful and deliberate way, delaying that process further will serve only to harm locals even more. The longer hotels are closed, the more likely it is that they will have to lay off portions of their thousands-strong workforce. The longer businesses remain shuttered, the more likely they are to go under, leaving their employees looking for new jobs. If too many former employees end up looking for too few jobs, some of those people will have to leave Maui—and possibly leave Hawaii altogether.
In the short term, keeping West Maui closed may help with the healing and grieving process, but that must be balanced against an understanding of the potential long-term consequences of continued closure.
The economic consequences of delayed reopening on Maui echo those suffered in the U.S. during the pandemic and its aftermath. The COVID-19 pandemic first struck three and a half years ago. States such as New York and New Jersey made open-ended emergency declarations that shut down businesses for an indeterminate period with no guidance in place about when things would open back up. States such as Georgia and Florida took a different approach, erring on the side of keeping businesses and schools as open as possible. In the years since the pandemic, many people have come to realize that a balanced, measured response to a crisis is much better in the long term than an “all or nothing” response.
Keeping schools and businesses as open as possible during the pandemic lessened learning loss for students and helped small businesses weather the crisis. Taking the same kind of approach to closures in West Maui could have avoided what may turn out to be significant negative consequences. At Whalers Village, an outdoor mall in Ka’anapali, most of the stores are closed. The stores that are open belong to large corporations, for which Whalers Village is only one of dozens or hundreds of locations.
It is the small businesses there that are the most affected—each day without tourist revenue hurts them more and more. In fact, business owners are taking to social media to advocate for restrictions to be lifted, launching pages such as “ReOpen Maui” and garnering hundreds of followers. Most of the hotels in West Maui are serving as temporary housing for displaced residents and relief workers—as it should be. But Whalers Village could be full of people coming from other, open parts of Maui if the government’s messaging had been right from the start.
We learned from COVID-19 that the government’s reaction to a crisis should be measured and well-thought-out in order to avoid unintended consequences. Yes, governments are made of individual people, all of whom have emotional responses to tragedies such as COVID-19 and the Maui wildfires. However, we hope our government will act in the best interests of all people rather than make choices that favor one group or perspective over another.
If the state of Hawaii’s reaction to the Maui wildfires is any indication, many of the lessons we thought we had learned about government responses to disasters, we actually didn’t. Instead of examining the whole picture and carefully weighing the consequences of their decisions, Hawaii’s leaders have overreacted, with potentially grave consequences.
Should priority for lodging, particularly in nearby hotels, be given to displaced Lahaina families and relief workers? Probably. But should massive resorts, each with hundreds of rooms, be required to remain closed to tourists who could help fund recovery efforts and keep local businesses afloat? Should officials have declared that the entire island was off-limits to tourism when only a small portion was severely affected? The answers to those questions are less clear.
Eventually, we realized that life could continue as normal despite COVID-19. Schools and businesses could reopen, and people could travel. America could get back to work and restart its economic engine without too much disruption. Hawaii never considered whether that could be the case in Maui after the wildfires. Instead, it reacted in the same way the federal and state governments did to COVID-19: with arbitrary shutdowns and an economic wet blanket.
Small businesses were hit particularly hard by the government’s reaction to the pandemic, just as they are being hit hard on Maui by the government’s response to the wildfires. Maui businesses are signaling that they are open and ready to receive visitors, and the government should be listening to them, not the other way around.