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Maui wildfires highlight Hawaii’s economic dependence on tourism

Destructive series of wildfires in Lahaina result in 97 fatalities, significant decrease in tourism, economic crisis
Angie Nelson
Angie Nelson, a Maui-based photographer, captures her two daughters watching waves on the beach. “Visting Maui right now will help us keep our economy afloat while we help our community heal and rebuild,” Nelson said.

The U.S.’s deadliest wildfire in a century engulfed the historic town of Lahaina on Hawaii’s island of Maui on Aug. 8, with the death toll standing at 115 as of Sept. 11 and 66 still unaccounted for.

While Hawaiian tourism officials heavily discouraged tourism in the weeks following the fires, recent advice has become more encouraging, leaving tourists grappling with whether to cancel their vacation plans to the island. Tourism accounts for around 80% of Maui’s economy and according to Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism in the last three years more than 3 million tourists have visited Maui, spending around $5.4 billion annually.

Karen Lawrence, a Palo Alto resident who was staying a few miles north of Lahaina on vacation during the fires, said once the internet and cell towers went down during the fires, the situation turned to chaos.

“Backup power went fairly quickly after that, and there was no communication from anybody official. We were not getting good information,” Lawrence said.

Despite the lack of information, Lawrence said the Maui government prioritized evacuating tourists off the island to make sure local residents could eat.

“You couldn’t get new supplies. The existing non-burned markets were selling out all their food,” she said.

While Hawaii Gov. Josh Green has discouraged all nonessential travel to West Maui through Oct. 17, Green still emphasized the importance of tourism to the Hawaiian economy while delivering remarks alongside President Joe Biden on Aug. 21. 

But Angie Nelson, who owns two photography businesses in Maui, said the lack of tourists has her worried about her companies.

“For my wedding (shoots), I’ve had all but three weddings either postpone or cancel through the end of 2023,” Nelson said. “My other company, Engaged on Maui, went from fully booked to less than 20 shoots until the end of the year. Both of my businesses rely on tourism, so we are really feeling it.”

Nelson said she encourages tourists to continue to visit Hawaii because they are crucial to the island’s recovery.

“Visiting Maui right now is helping us keep our economy afloat while we help our community heal and rebuild,” Nelson said. “If our economy collapses, we aren’t in a position to help one another.”

Keoni Rodriguez, a PhD candidate in Indigenous Politics at the University of Hawai’i, said the fires highlight a broader issue of how Maui’s tourism-dependent economy is unsustainable for locals because of the island’s high cost of living, including housing, energy, transportation and food.

“(Hawaiians) are unable, on the median wage for a tourism worker, to meet the cost of living,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a disconnect where we built an economy in which (tourists) have to come here, and even if it’s at its best, (locals) are unable to make a living wage. There has to be another system that will work for residents of Hawaii.”

Rodriguez said that in wake of disasters like the Lahaina fires, there is an opportunity to reframe Hawaii’s economic priorities. 

“I would personally discourage people from visiting until they find a better system and find a way that tourism employees are not having over three jobs and still not being able to pay rent,” Rodriguez said.

Tess van Hulsen, a Palo Alto resident who has been to Lahaina multiple times over the past 15 years and organized community supply donations to Maui, stressed the importance of supporting Maui’s recovery.

“Donating physical donations was the initial phase of supporting Maui and the survivors that had lost everything,” van Hulsen said. “Now we must shift to thinking about how we can support Maui in the long term, and that could be donating financially or helping contribute through tourism.”

You can donate to Lahaina families via GoFundMe here

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Holden Lee
Holden Lee, Lifestyle & Science/Tech Editor
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