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Maui is ready for its close-up, according to a new marketing campaign. If tourism doesn't rebound soon, valuable talent may leave.

Tourists have remained unsure whether Maui is ready to welcome them after its painful recovery from last August’s wildfires. So Hawaii’s tourism agency launched a marketing campaign last week to reassure them that the entire island is open for business.

The campaign spotlights local businesses and residents welcoming visitors back, and it’s called Mākaukau Maui, which means “Maui is Ready.”

“We wanted to offer a platform and a voice for them to make that invitation to folks,” said T. Ilihia Gionson, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s public affairs officer.

Tourism officials launched the campaign after visitor spending dropped 19% in January. Maui lost an estimated $120 million in revenue.

Maui faces competition from other sun-and-sea destinations that are also wooing mainland Americans.

“We’re in competition with other sun destinations,” said Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Lodging and Hotel Association. “Mexico and the Caribbean are pushing hard.”

Clock Is Ticking in Western Maui

If tourism doesn’t recover quickly, skilled restaurant and other tourism workers may leave the area. Some may have already.

A large number of Maui locals remain unemployed. Unemployment was 6.2% in January, up from 3% last year, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Some Maui locals also face the possibility of their unemployment benefits running out soon. 

“A lot of people that initially filed right after the fires, their unemployment benefits are ending at the end of this month,” said Paulson, noting that some locals have already left the island to find work elsewhere.

Airline Piece of the Puzzle

For Maui to make a full recovery, airlines will need to keep flying there. But seat capacity on flights to Maui was down 16% in January from a year earlier, according to Cirium Diio. The number of flights was down 14%.

“Despite the big dropoff in capacity since last summer, Maui’s airport is still busier now, measured by seat capacity, than it was during this time in 2019, before the pandemic,” said Jay Shabat, Senior Analyst and Co-Founder of Airline Weekly.

Complex Picture of Recovery

While the marketing campaign says Maui is ready for its close-up, the on-the-ground picture is more nuanced.

The August wildfires destroyed the homes of thousands of individuals and families. According to Paulson, over 3,300 displaced individuals stay in hotels in Kaanapali, Central Maui, and Kihei under contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross.  

At an HTA community meeting in December, some of Maui’s displaced voiced concerns about the lack of long-term housing and potential the loss of their accommodations to tourists. Government officials are trying to find a long-term housing solution for the displaced.

Another concern raised at the December community meeting was about tourists being disrespectful as locals try to heal.

Gionson said this week that tourists were being sensitive to locals. “The feedback I’m getting is that a lot of folks are being very respectful,” he said. ”They are heeding the restrictions to stay out of the fire-affected areas.”

Future of the Historic Lahaina

The historic town of Lahaina sustained the most damage from the wildfire, with many parts completely destroyed and still off-limits to visitors. Lahaina was once a former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. 

Yet some of the town’s buildings and sites have survived.

“There are things like the famous Lahaina Banyan Tree that are showing signs of renewed life, places like Old Lahaina Luau on the waterfront, which just reopened recently,” said Gionson.

The community is trying to figure out how to rebuild Lahaina.

“I don’t think the tourism industry should drive the conversation about what happens next,” said Gionson. “It’s a community conversation that needs to be had.”

Maui’s Ongoing Marketing Confusion

On August 8, Maui’s western region suffered a devastating wildfire that killed over 100 people, damaged thousands of buildings, and caused over $5 billion in damage. 

The government initially said that the whole island was off-limits to tourists, but then said that applied only to the western portion. That area didn’t fully reopen until November.

Immediately after the fire, the Hawaii Tourism Authority ran a campaign called Mālama Maui – “to protect, nurture and care for” – to try to stop people from canceling trips to Maui’s still-open and unaffected areas.

Yet, as of today, the whole island continues to struggle.

“We’re almost nine months since the fire, and we continue to hear ‘We’re not sure if Maui is open,’ or ‘We’re not sure if we should go,’ said Gionson.


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Tags: hawaii, marketing, marketing campaign, maui, tourism, tourism campaigns

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