Unveiling the Devastating Impact of Maui Tourism Disaster: Soaring Job and Housing Insecurities

Tourism on Maui has reopened after the devastating wildfires in August, which were the deadliest in modern U.S. history. However, the economic impact of the fires is still unfolding, and recovery is expected to take years. Daniel Naho’opi’i, the interim CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, stated that the tourism emergency is ongoing, and plans are being developed and implemented to support the community and marketing efforts.

During a webinar titled “Pathways to Recovery: Tourism Updates,” Naho’opi’i, along with James Kunane Tokioka, the director of the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, and Shannon McKee, president of HTA contractor Access Cruise, discussed the areas of concern for Maui’s tourism-dependent economy. They estimated that it would take four years for Maui’s tourism industry to recover to pre-fire levels. The decline in tourism in the affected West Maui area is also impacting statewide tourism results.

The effects of the wildfires can still be seen in airfare bookings and hotel reservations. Airfare bookings to Maui through March are significantly lower than historical numbers from 2022 and pre-pandemic rates from 2019. Hotel reservations in Maui have seen a slight increase in October due to housing displaced residents and relief workers, but they have since fallen compared to 2022 and are projected to remain negative until at least September of next year. This pattern is seen across the entire state.

In terms of cruise ships, Lahaina Harbor remains closed indefinitely. While some cruise ships are visiting Port Kahului, it is not always available due to the presence of other vessels, and some international ships are too large for the port. Ma’alaea Harbor could potentially serve as a new tender for international cruise vessels, but the approval process would be lengthy and require an evaluation of the port and weather conditions.

The wildfires have also had a significant impact on the local community. Over 7,000 residents on Maui have filed unemployment claims, both directly due to the fires and as a result of the subsequent decline in tourism. Those who have lost their main source of income or public assistance are at risk of losing their housing within the next six months.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has been actively involved in the disaster response since August 8, focusing on visitor evacuations and supporting emergency operations centers. Marketing efforts resumed on August 21, and a $2.6 million U.S. Marketing Maui Recovery Plan was approved on August 31. The plan is being executed by the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

To support the recovery efforts, HTA has convened a Disaster Response Permitted Interaction Group and has participated in community meetings and cultural sensitivity trainings. They have also awarded a contract to SMS Research & Marketing Services Inc. for planning services related to messaging strategy and tourism recovery. SMS is expected to provide support for data gathering and plan development through in-person meetings and a larger public community meeting.

Keith Vieira, a hospitality consulting expert, emphasizes the need for greater investment in the relaunch of Maui tourism. He suggests a multimillion-dollar campaign and a percentage of transient accommodations taxes to be invested in marketing. He believes that Hawaii needs to keep up with other destinations, particularly with Americans canceling trips to Europe and the Middle East and opting for the Caribbean instead.

Naho’opi’i and Tokioka stress the importance of Maui’s tourism recovery, as it directly impacts the well-being of residents and has spillover effects on the rest of the state. They acknowledge the shortage of available housing in West Maui and highlight the unsustainable situation of housing fire survivors in hotels. Efforts are being made to find alternative accommodations for displaced residents.

In an effort to address the housing issue, the Maui advocacy group Lahaina Strong has started a petition urging Mayor Richard Bissen to use emergency powers to convert short-term rentals into long-term rentals for at least one year to house displaced residents in Lahaina.

Overall, the road to recovery for Maui’s tourism industry is expected to be long and challenging, but efforts are being made to support the community and revitalize the economy.


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