West Maui has started to reopen to tourists. That will probably do more for the rest of the island than the western region, which is still healing.
Tourism is slowly coming back to Maui as the Hawaiian government starts to lift travel restrictions to the western region, two months after devastating wildfires that left nearly 100 dead and displaced thousands of people.
West Maui will reopen to tourists in three staggered phases. The first phase begins on October 8 and will cover the area from Ritz-Carlton, Maui Kapalua to Kahana Villa. The next two phases don’t have dates yet.
The historic Lahaina town will remain closed.
Not everyone agrees with the plan. Local activists asked the governor to push back the reopening in a petition with more than 14,000 signatures. The governor said reopening was necessary for the health of the state’s economy, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported.
Tourism to the island collapsed in the aftermath of the August 8 fire. Airlines cut back service, tour operators removed the island from itineraries, and hotel occupancy rates plummeted.
In August, Maui visitor arrivals dropped 57.8% compared to 2022. Visitor spending dropped 49% to $246.7 million, according to the Hawaiian Tourism Authority.
Public authorities expect the island’s tourism recovery will be gradual. “We know this will be a long recovery,” said Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer of Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Tour operators are starting to sell trips to Maui again but they are not including West Maui. “We’re not focusing on West Maui or Lahaina,” said Jason Susinski, Kensington Tours Vice President of Product.
G Adventures plans to resume its itineraries in Maui in November. West Maui, however, will not be included. There will be no overnight stays in the region because many hotels are being used to accommodate those displaced from their homes, said a spokesperson.
Close to 7,800 of the displaced are still being housed in hotels, a large portion of which are in West Maui’s Kaanapali area, said Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association.
“We’re working on the next phase of housing. It’s very challenging. We’re an island state. We can’t drive across state lines to find additional housing,” said Paulson.
West Maui hotels that aren’t housing residents in Kapalua and Nāpil are still largely empty. “They’re very ready and willing to welcome back guests,” said Paulson.
There’s been an improvement for some hotels outside West Maui. South Maui is at a 54% occupancy rate, said Paulson.
“We are softer than we have been historically as we look at the next few months, but we are continuing to pick up,” said Ben Shank, general manager for Four Seasons Resorts Maui in Wailea, which is in South Maui.
Even so, the island is still far off from a recovery. Unemployment filings reached 8,700 for the last week of September, reported Hawaii News Now.
Where the West Maui’s reopening helps is boosting public messaging that the island is open to tourists, who are holding off on trips out of sensitivity. “A lot of people are interested in coming and to support, but there’s a sensitivity, a little bit of an almost apologetic of ‘I want to come but is it okay?,’” said Shank.
Susinski said Kensington Tours clients ask whether it’s too soon to return to Maui. “It’s certainly top of mind for a lot of travelers,” he said.
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Photo credit: Beach in Maui Pascal Debrunner / Unsplash