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On Maui, a desperate plea to tourists: Please return

A few tourists stand under a rainbow as the clouds clear at Haleakalā on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Though much of the island is untouched, tourism is down drastically.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
A few tourists stand under a rainbow as the clouds clear at Haleakalā on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Though much of the island is untouched, tourism is down drastically.

PAIA, Hawaii — One recent afternoon on Mana'o Radio, broadcasting from Wailuku on Maui, the local disc jockey Forest had a pitch for listeners streaming his Blue Busshow from outside the Hawaiian islands.

"Another way you can support Maui, come here," he said. "The Maui economy relies on tourism, to stay away now will just make the problem worse."

Despite scenes of horrible tragedy in Lahaina on the news in, Forest continued, the rest of the island is open: 730 square miles of beauty isn't burned.

This plea has become a refrain across the island.

Immediately after the deadly wildfires, tourists were turned away. Trips were canceled. Flights were suspended. Some airline apps are still warning against nonessential travel to the island.

Downtown Paia on Monday, some tourist shops are closed and others have adjusted hours.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Downtown Paia on Monday, some tourist shops are closed and others have adjusted hours.

But three weeks since the fires ignited, local businesses and state tourism officials are now making desperate pleas for tourists to return to "the other 75%" of the island that is unscathed.

"It kind of feels like COVID again, where nobody's making money and they're just trying to survive," says Sne Patel, who manages vacation rentals in the resort areas around Lahaina.

Tourism accounts for nearly the entire Maui economy

Last year, tourists spent more than $5.5 billion on Maui. The island typically gets upwards of 3 million visitors a year. State tourism officials don't have an exact number on how many tourists are beginning to trickle back in again — they only count those arriving on planes, many of whom are believed to be aid workers, journalists or homeowners returning to check their properties after the disaster.

But locals estimate the number is a couple thousand at the most. And many of the tourists who are here still feel a little conflicted.

Tourists jump into a pool of water next to a waterfall at Pua'a Ka'a State Wayside Park.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Tourists jump into a pool of water next to a waterfall at Pua'a Ka'a State Wayside Park.

"We were kind of scared. We didn't know if it was looked down upon for coming here," says Kennedy Syrota, as she was eating an ice cream cone in the seaside town of Paia.

Visiting from Canada, she and a friend are touring the Hawaiian islands for a month after graduating college. They decided to come back to Maui after reading a post from the surf hostel where they had planned to stay. It urged tourists to return and help keep local small businesses afloat.

"We were a little hesitant and we still are," Syrota says. "But [after]talking to more people, we know that we wanted to be here and we hope that more people come, as well."

Lahaina isn't for sightseeing

Many longtime locals are also still feeling conflicted. At first, it was unimaginable that anyone would or should vacation around Lahaina. In order to get to all the resorts and golf courses on the west side of Maui, visitors would have to drive through the destruction where urban search and recovery teams are wrapping up their grim work.

"Stay out of Lahaina, this isn't a sightseeing place right now," says Bully Kotter, who lost everything he owns in the Aug. 8 fires. "This place is devastated and it's not very sensitive, thinking about all these people and all the trauma they've gone through."

A memorial stands on the side of the highway that runs through Lahaina.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A memorial stands on the side of the highway that runs through Lahaina.

But Kotter's lived here for almost 60 years. He runs a surf school. The rest of his family works at resort hotels.

Most of them are closed indefinitely.

"I'm conflicted because people have got three months of savings," Kotter says. "What are they going to do? There's going to be a mass exodus of people leaving here."

Bully Kotter runs a surf school in the area. He and his wife, Ashley, lost their home in the fire.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Bully Kotter runs a surf school in the area. He and his wife, Ashley, lost their home in the fire.

A shift from don't come to visit responsibly

A mass exodus is always a big concern after such a huge disaster. But the stakes here may be higher than most considering almost the entire island is dependent on tourism.

There was already a labor and housing shortage before the fires.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates that West Maui is losing more than a million dollars a day since Aug. 8. Statewide, the organization puts that figure at close to $9 million.

A tourist walks up a trail through the trees in Pua'a Ka'a State Wayside Park.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A tourist walks up a trail through the trees in Pua'a Ka'a State Wayside Park.

Sne Patel, the vacation rental manager in Lahaina, is doing all he can to keep businesses afloat. One property that he owns was also destroyed. But standing at his second story balcony, he looks out over much of his neighborhood that's untouched.

"Initially saying that all of Maui was closed ... I don't know if that was the right message," Patel says. "It's hard to bring those individuals back."

Especially, he says, when the images of the devastation are still on loop in TV news footage.

Patel leads the Lahaina Town Action Committee, an advocacy group comprised of 110 local businesses. Almost all of them are believed to have burned down.

He's organizing meetings this week with federal officials and relief agencies and hopes that this area along the coast north of town can be reopened by mid October. That's when the governor's initial disaster declaration runs out.

Tourists take a selfie at sunset on an empty beach in Paia on Monday.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Tourists take a selfie at sunset on an empty beach in Paia on Monday.

"I think the messaging can shift in some capacity to come and visit responsibly," Patel says. "Don't stop where the impact site is, go directly to your resort, stay around the beaches that are right at your resort."

But some of Patel's longtime guests are telling him that for now, anyway, they just don't want to come and celebrate big milestones or vacation. It's too difficult when their favorite place is suffering from so much tragedy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.