Let Maui tourism recover at its own pace

There has been a lot of passionate debate about when to reopen West Maui to tourism in the wake of the Aug. 8 fires in Lahaina that killed almost a hundred people and destroyed thousands of homes and nearly a thousand businesses.

Proponents of reopening say Maui desperately needs the revenues to help island residents get back on their feet. Critics of reopening, on the other hand, contend that survivors need more time to grieve, and that it would be insensitive and even offensive to have tourists traipsing through their communities while recovery efforts have barely begun.

Lost in the discussion is an important question: Should the government have the last word in creating a tourism timeline?

My answer is no. Everyone in the area should have their own timelines for when they want to re-engage with the tourism industry — if they want to participate in the tourism industry at all. After all, not everyone wants to work in a hotel, restaurant or retail outlet that caters to tourists. And that should be their right.

But overall, we need to leave it to Maui residents to decide what is best for them individually — especially to the extent that they are the rightful owners of the properties involved.

To be clear, our state and counties do have a role to play when it comes to legitimate questions of public health and safety. But just as our and state county governments should not be involved in promoting the tourism, neither should they be trying to block it.

Aside from the principle of the matter, there also is the practical reality that tourism is important in helping Lahaina and all of Maui recover economically.

Just yesterday, Honolulu Civil Beat published an article saying that Maui County is facing a $31.2 million budget shortfall due to the wildfires in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda. And back in late August, the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawai‘i estimated that Maui’s economy was losing $13 million a day because of the fires.

Unemployment on the island is now rampant, and many residents are likely to leave for other islands or the mainland to find ways to support themselves and their families.

In short, there are good reasons why many people on Maui are desperate to see tourism return to the island.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen recently announced he will initiate a phased-in reopening of West Maui, starting tomorrow. But that might not wind up being as troublesome to local residents as reopening opponents expect.

Initial reports indicate that there won’t be a flood of tourists heading to Maui in the coming weeks; it’s likely to be more of a trickle. The state’s chief economist, Eugene Tian, said this week that it took more than two years for Maui visitor arrivals to reach 95% of their 2019 pre-COVID-19 level, and it probably will take more than two years for them to rebound to where they were before the fires.

Ultimately, I recognize wholeheartedly that this is a difficult topic. Each side of the debate should have understanding and sympathy for the other. It is best to approach these differences in a spirit of compassion and goodwill. People naturally have different needs and concerns, and we are all trying our best to address them.

This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Oct. 7, 2023. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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