Maui’s Hospitality Sector Navigates Tourism Messaging After Devastating Fires

“This is the worst disaster that Maui has ever faced, probably that Hawaii has ever faced,” says Maui native Kainoa Horcajo, a Hawaiian cultural advisor and the co-owner of consultancy The Mo’olelo Group. With the death toll reaching 111, and 1,000 people still unaccounted for amid the devastation and destruction, the Maui disaster is officially the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. since 1918. “Businesses come second. The people and the families are first,” says Horcajo. “We know a lot of people want to come out here. But we need to focus our resources on taking care of our local families, on making sure that our visitor industries, our hotels have the ability to help in the community. That we’re all working together.”

In the first few days after the fires swept through West Maui, largely destroying the town of Lahaina — a number of celebrities spoke out on social media to implore tourists to not come to the island, among them Jason Momoa, Mia Tyler (who evacuated in the midst of her vacation when the fires began) and Moana star Auli’i Cravalho.

“Maui is not the place to have your vacation right now,” Momoa wrote on August 12. “DO NOT TRAVEL TO MAUI. Do not convince yourself that your presence is needed on an island that is suffering this deeply. Mahalo to everyone who has donated and shown aloha to the community in this time of need.”

Native Hawaiian Cravalho urged, “Do not travel to Hawai’i unless you are rendering aid. This has been declared a federal disaster. Your vacation can wait.”

Amid those warnings, Paris Hilton and her husband Carter Reum came under scrutiny on social media for strolling on Maui’s Wailea Beach while on vacation over the weekend, in an area that’s about 30 miles southeast of the fire-effected areas of West Maui.

The latest messaging on travel to the island came on August 16 in a press conference with Hawaii Governor Josh Green. He stressed that only West Maui should be considered off-limits to vacationers. “So what we’re saying now is travel should not be to West Maui. But the other parts of Maui are safe,” said Green. “And the rest of the state, of course, is also safe.”

The Royal Lahaina Resort & Bungalows, which survived the fire, has temporarily suspended immediate bookings in order to work with FEMA and commit 200 rooms to house displaced Lahaina residents and affected employees. But hotels and resorts in unaffected areas of the island — which on a typical day has an average of 69,000 visitors —  are still operating.

“We are following direction from the state to restrict non-essential travel to West Maui for the next several weeks so that collective efforts can be focused on the community,” says Kelly Sanders, EVP of operations for Highgate Hotels, the owner. The hospitality company, which operates the Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach, The Twin Fin and many more, is donating $10 from every upcoming booking to the Highgate Charitable Foundation, with the goal of reaching $1 million for Maui families and community relief. “We are looking forward to welcoming guests again in the near future, as visitors will be essential to Maui’s next phase of recovery,” says Sanders.

The Hawai’i Tourism Authority says hotels in West Maui have temporarily stopped accepting future reservations, and they encourage visitors to wait until infrastructure and communications have stabilized to reach out for reservation changes. Those with travel plans in places outside of West Maui including Wailea, Kahului and Wailuku are encouraged to communicate with their hotel to ensure their upcoming bookings can still be honored. “It would be catastrophic if no one traveled to the island,” Green has said. At the August 16 news conference, he noted, “We want people to travel to the state to the extent that they’re not impacting the hard work that these extraordinary people are doing [supporting disaster relief].”

Ben Shank, general manager of Four Seasons Resort Maui, where White Lotus season 1 was famously filmed, tells THR, “Our focus during the weeks ahead is on providing immediate aid to the community and caring for the Four Seasons Maui ‘ohana [family], all of whom have been impacted directly or indirectly by this unprecedented natural disaster and devastating loss.” For those with upcoming bookings, the resort is being “flexible and fluid” with those who want to cancel or postpone and visit later.

For everyone effected, it’s a jumble of emotions and responsibilities that are difficult to navigate.

Says Horcajo, “You can’t force anybody to leave and at the same time there are a lot of visitors helping in the relief efforts.” In fact, Shank says the Four Seasons had guests already staying at the property who “quickly jumped in to help with relief efforts, volunteering their time and donating resources.” Currently the resort is focused on housing displaced employees (and their families), emergency personnel and first responders, as well as donating linens and bedding, toiletries, diapers and more to local shelters on Maui.

Four Seasons is providing hundreds of daily meals to those in need in partnership with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen and are developing an Employee Pantry that will provide food, supplies and clothing to those displaced. The resort has also established an employee-focused Four Seasons Golden Rule Relief Fund to support employees in need directly, with remaining funds distributed to the Hawai’i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund. Montage Hotels & Resorts, which operates the island’s Montage Kapalua Bay property, has launched the Hearts of Montage Kapalua Bay Associate Emergency Relief Fund. 

Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, is also working with World Central Kitchen and other hotels to prepare and provide meals to Maui shelters and has donated a full emergency kitchen for West Maui. The resort is a lead sponsor of the Wiwo’ole Maui Benefit Concert scheduled to be live-streamed on August 19, 2023, to raise funds for the Maui Strong Fund. Hawaiian Airlines, which has so far transported first responders and evacuated displaced residents and visitors as well as delivered more than 54,000 pounds of essential medical supplies and communications equipment, is supporting the live benefit concert and broadcast fundraiser Maui Ola on August 20 at 5 p.m. HST at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.

Horcajo stresses that having a major decline in tourism on Maui would be devastating to the local economy. “A complete shutdown will destroy a lot of our local businesses,” he says. “So all of those employees and local businesses that keep the economy running, everything from our grocery stories to our clothing stores, need to be supported as well.” FEMA estimates that the long-term cost of recovery and rebuilding in West Maui — where a host of historic structures were destroyed, as were the 18-room bed and breakfast The Plantation Inn and Mick Fleetwood’s longtime restaurant Mick’s on Front Street — will top $5.5 billion.

In lieu of going to Maui at this time, some travel advisors suggest visiting another Hawaiian island instead as well as donating to one of many organizations that are actively supporting the island’s road to recovery. Many celebrities including Matthew McConaughey, Olivia Wilde, Kerry Washington, Kim Kardashian and Zooey Deschanel have directed fans to Baby2Baby; McConaughey personally donated $100,000 for a private air transport of emergency supplies and made a recent video with his son about the NGO’s relief work. Baby2Baby has already sent tens of thousands of diapers, wipes, formula, baby food and other basic essentials to families and, with the help of talent and businesses including Honest, Thrive Market and Hello Bello are delivering hundreds of thousands more this week.

Other organizations that are accepting monetary donations include Maui Strong Fund, Maui United Way, American Red Cross, Maui Food Bank, and The Local 5 Hardship Fund (supporting employees working in healthcare, hotels and food service operations). Hawaii native Barack Obama shared many of these on his Instagram as well as Maui Rapid Response, Maui Humane Society, New Life Kahuku Inc. and The Wildfire Relief Fund with a link to make donations.

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