After confusion with tourism message in wake of wildfires, Maui struggles to woo visitors back

Part of the initial reponse to the wildfires on Maui was to ask visitors to leave. But now, they’re not coming back.
Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 9:11 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 31, 2023 at 11:51 AM HST
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KAHULUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Part of the initial response to the wildfires on Maui was to ask visitors to leave. But now, they’re not coming back — and they’re also canceling future plans, which businesses and tourism officials say will hurt the recovery efforts.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, there were just under 3,500 visitors a day to the Valley Isle this month. That’s just half the number seen in August 2022.

The loss is being felt not only on Maui, but around the rest of the state.

Air Maui Helicopters produced a YouTube video to let people know it’s safe to visit Maui.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires

“We normally fly three helicopters a day, about 25 to 30 flights a day with our pilots,” said Air Maui Operations Director Richard Olsten.

“We’re doing one helicopter a day with one to two flights a day.”

Olsten said its seven pilots are each flying just one day a week, splitting the meager schedule. He said he’s also laid off his dispatchers as the cancellations mount.

“We’ve had cancellations on our tourists through the month of December,” he said. “Hundreds cancelling because they don’t even think the island is going to be suitable.”

Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said West Maui accounted for about 15% of Hawaii’s tourism economy before the Lahaina wildfire.

“Just for a sense of scale, Waikiki accounts for about 35%.”

The HTA estimates the drop in tourists to Maui is costing $9 million per day in visitor spending, which has an economic ripple effect across the islands.

“For example, if you had a restaurant in Lahaina, you might have ordered your tomatoes from Hawaii Island, you might have ordered other vegetables from Oahu, perhaps sweet potatoes from Molokai,” Gionson said.

Tourism officials are now trying to push the message that Maui is open for business.

Even Hollywood movie star Jason Momoa took to his Instagram to say so — while also reminding visitors that West Maui is still off-limits.

“Now is an even more important time to come and be a part of our community. Yet, let Lahaina grieve,” Momoa said, in an Instagram story.

“Our tours do not show any portion of Lahaina whatsoever,” said Olsten. “Passengers, even if they requested it, that’s not something that’s available.”

But Air Maui’s video shows the scenery of the rest of the Valley Isle, inviting visitors to return. “They need to know that it’s okay, it’s okay to come,” said Gionson. “And by coming, you’re supporting Maui’s economy. You’re supporting Maui’s ability to recover.”