As the plane descends to Maui’s airport in Kahului, it’s readily apparent how sharply tourism has dropped off following the massive fires a month ago: hundreds of unrented rental cars parked in a field near the runway. In the aftermath of the blaze that leveled the historic town of Lahaina and caused so much personal suffering and loss, it was understandable for Hawaii’s Governor Josh Green to advise visitors not to come to Maui. Now facing the financial devastation of an island that depends on tourism, the government changed its position and is urging visitors to come, including to the resort areas of West Maui north of Lahaina which are reopening October 8th. But should visitors listen?
“Yes,”says chef Lee Anne Wong, who lost her restaurant Papa‘aina in the historic Pioneer Inn in the Lahaina fire and then working out of the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College kitchen joined other chefs from the island such as Sheldon Simeon, chef-owner of Tin Roof (moments from the airport in Kahului) and Tiffany’s to turn out thousands of meals for displaced residents and emergency personnel. She’s also actively involved in setting up an infrastructure to support the island’s businesses along with organizations that sprang into action immediately such as Common Ground Collective and the Oahu based nonprofit Chef Hui. “Maui needs visitors. South, Central, Upcountry are all open for business and these businesses need money to stay open. Everybody is in fear of losing their job now.”
The West Maui opening including the resort areas of Kapalua, Nāpili-Honokōwai, and Ka’anapali north of Lahaina will require a carefully thought out, nuanced solution given the physical and emotional recovery ongoing and the fact that displaced residents and emergency workers have been housed in the resorts there while efforts continue to find them permanent housing on an island where affordable housing was already a problem. The five square mile Lahaina impact zone under FEMA’s supervision and under guard by the military is still off limits and will remain so. The visitors who are welcomed will be the ones who are sensitive and respectful, who patronize local businesses and don’t use the destruction as a backdrop for selfies.
“This is an opportunity for more conscious tourism,” Wong explains. ”If you come to Maui, don’t be a jerk. We want conscious, empathetic visitors. When you come here on vacation, say hello to the people here, they’re not the hired help, they live here and work here and give you great memories. Tourists sometimes forget that. They’re human beings, connect, that’s why Hawaii is so special. Become part of our ohana. That’s how I came to Hawaii—I’m not from here.”
And as I discovered on a visit last week, the rest of the island is, indeed, open, providing the vacation experiences that visitors come to Maui to experience. In South Maui, for instance, the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea (best known as the setting for the first season of The White Lotus) is taking guests out on the waves in outrigger canoes, teaching about the travels of Polynesians to Hawaii on a Wayfinder exploration with celestial navigator Kala Baybayan Tanaka, organizing snorkeling expeditions to discover the coral reefs or helicopter trips out to Hana on the east end of the island and a swim in lava caves.
Like other businesses on the island, the resort has also added experiences earmarked to contribute to recovery aid. Breaking Bad costars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s Mezcal brand Dos Hermanos is collaborating on a restaurant popup featuring Oaxacan cuisine (very busy the night I was there) and all proceeds from the signature cocktail are being directed to the Maui Strong Fund created by the Hawaii Community Fund. $200 a night of the room rate will also be donated to the fund when guests book the Maui Strong package. Guests can also arrange voluntourism experiences through the concierge. And starting October 1st, the resort will begin a series of culinary popup events, Love for Lahaina, on Sundays through the month to support the West Side restaurant employees and local farmers impacted by the fires: the first one will benefit Lee Anne Wong’s employees at Papa‘aina; later in the month another dinner will benefit the employees of another revered local chef, Isaac Bancaco who also lost his restaurant Pacific’o on the Beach in the fire and started to cook immediately for members of the community.
Nearby, even going out to dinner at Matteo’s Osteria in Wailea can benefit those in need: chef/owner Matteo Mistura is donating 25% of all sales to the Maui Strong Fund. And, while tourism is below usual levels, one advantage of going to Maui now is that guests can get reservations the same day for famed North Shore restaurant Mama’s Fish House which typically books up months in advance. Since chef Perry Bateman is another of the chefs who immediately began cooking for members of the community impacted by the fires and first responders and is still providing meals, diners can experience a memorable meal and support those providing essential aid.