HONOLULU (AP) — The area around the city of Maui, largely destroyed by a wildfire two months ago, began welcoming tourists Sunday after Hawaii’s mayor and governor pushed for a restart of tourism to boost the economy, despite opposition from some Lahaina residents.
Five West Maui hotels were accepting reservations again, according to their websites and the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association. In addition, eight timeshare properties — where visitors have an ownership interest in their room — opened in the region earlier this month, including some within a few miles of the devastation.
The reopening fell on the two-month anniversary of the wildfire that killed at least 98 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, many of them homes and apartments.
Many local residents objected to the resumption of tourism in West Maui, which includes the town of Lahaina and a stretch of coastline to the north. Opponents said they don’t want passengers questioning them about their traumatic experiences as they grieve the loss of loved ones and process the destruction of their homes.
More than 3,500 Lahaina area residents signed a petition asking Hawaii Governor Josh Green to delay the restart. Green said the restart will help Maui’s tourism-driven economy get on the road to recovery.
It is not clear how many passengers stayed in hotels and vacation rentals. Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, said her organization’s studies show the numbers will be “low.” She predicts “a very slow increase in returning visitors.”
On Saturday, Maui County released a video message from Mayor Richard Bissen acknowledging the difficulty of the situation.
“I know we’re still grieving and it feels too early. But the reality is that there are people in our community who are ready to go back to work. Bills have to be paid, keiki have needs and our kupuna faces ongoing medical care,” Bissen said, using the Hawaiian words for children and adults, respectively.
Thousands of tourists staying in beachfront hotels north of the burn zone left Maui in the days after the fire. Since then, about 11,000 hotel rooms in West Maui have either been empty or housed displaced Lahaina residents under a program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross.
Bissen said he is working hard to ensure that no one affected by the fire has to leave their temporary housing to make way for visitors.
The county prepared another video highlighting places visitors can go outside of West Maui, including the town of Paia on Maui’s north shore and the scenic road to Hana on the east side of the island.
The video message urged visitors to show respect by staying away from the burn area, not taking and posting “inappropriate images” on social media and following signs and instructions.
Separately, the Governor’s Office of Health and Sustainability has prepared a flyer with tips on how visitors can be respectful, which it plans to distribute at hotels, car rental offices and other places visitors frequent.
Four of the five reopening hotels were in northernmost West Maui, including the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua. This area is 7 to 10 miles and a 15 to 20 minute drive north of the part of Lahaina that burned.
Green indicated that fewer hotels would be open. Last week, he told Hawaii News Now’s interview program “Spotlight Now” that “I believe only one or maybe two hotels will be fully open on that date, the 8th.” Green’s office said the numbers have varied over time.
Mauian is again among the hotels welcoming travelers. It posted a note on its website saying the return of visitors would help stabilize the economy and provide jobs and support “for those who have lost so much in this disaster.”
“However, we humbly ask that if you visit West Maui in the coming months, please do so with sensitivity and respect for those who have suffered great loss,” the note said. “Your kindness, understanding and aloha will be appreciated during this time.”
The lodging association’s Paulson said timeshares sometimes rent to non-owner travelers, but now they don’t in West Maui, out of respect, she said.