HONOKOWAI — Sitting behind the counter at her quiet 808 Boards surf and skate shop in Honokowai Thursday morning, Crystal Mitchell said she could instead be working on her insurance claims for the home she lost in the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire.
Typically, a store that rents paddleboards, surfboards, and other beach gear has more staff, including a driver to make rental deliveries.
But now this business is almost non-existent.
“I really need a job to come back. I have a lot of work” said Mitchell, who with her husband and two sons managed to escape their burning Lahaina home despite losing two of their dogs. Her husband was also injured in the fire.
Even with the reopening of West Maui, which began Oct. 8 with Phase 1 from The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua to Kahana Villa, Mitchell hasn’t seen a real increase in visitors.
“Yesterday, no, yesterday there was no rise at all. No promotion today,” she said Thursday morning. “Hopefully we’ll be better by the holidays.” It’s become quite soft now.’
She said the rental business, which mainly caters to tourists, is down 90 percent, and the retail store business for most of the month of October is down 50 percent.
She also failed to get help from government authorities.
Wednesday marked the reopening of Phases 2 and 3 of the three-phase plan that Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen created after Gov. Josh Green announced in September that West Maui would reopen to tourism on Oct. 8, two months after deadly wildfires ravaged Lahaina City Residences and Businesses.
On October 23, Bissen announced that the last two phases would reopen, saying that there “some pretty good results since reopening on 8th October” and that “the interaction between visitors and the local community was positive and that also entered into our decision.” Phases 2 and 3 cover the area from Kahana to the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa in Kaanapali.
In September, West Maui hotels were almost fully occupied by fire-evacuees from Lahaina and relief workers, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
John and Deanna DeGroot of Oregon, who were shopping in Kahana Thursday, said they were staying at the Ka’anapali Beach Resort, one of the only ones open.
They came to celebrate their 46th anniversary as well as trying to support the economy and said they felt welcome as regulars.
“Everybody Knows Us” Jon DeGroot said about the places they visit.
He added that today he signed up to help the Red Cross.
The MacDonald family from Washington state was seriously considering their decision to come to Maui, even holding a family reunion and talking to the people of Maui.
“We were very anxious to do it,” Kaytie McDonald said of their trip to Valley Isle that was planned about a year ago. She was with her family at Honokowai Market on Thursday morning.
“I don’t want to do anything disrespectful. None of us did.” she said.
Her father, Thomas McDonald, said he initially didn’t want to come to Maui, but the family was encouraged to visit by people at an apartment building in Napili, where they ended up staying.
“We love and respect Hawaiian culture,” said his wife, Gina McDonald. “We know they need time to heal and grieve.”
Susie McDonald Erickson, the matriarch of the family, had this to say “we try to buy, we give good advice” in enterprises.
“I’ve been coming here for over 20 years. You are going through a lot. We just want to let you know that we support you,” she said.
Lahaina resident Crisanto Ancheta, whose family lost their rental home on Aki Street in Lahaina, expressed the difficulty of welcoming visitors back after a tragedy, but also needs them to help the economy.
“I like tourists coming back” said Ancheta, an Uber driver who depends on visitors.
He and many others are torn between two points of view.
“We don’t want them coming because of what happened, but you know we need them because we need them to pay our bills.” he said.
He and his family are currently staying at the Royal Lahaina Resort and his children have returned to their respective schools, Princess Nahi’ena’ena Elementary and Lahaina Intermediate.
John Pasqua lost his own home and another he rented out in Lahaina. He is also an Uber driver and lost three of his six cars in the fire.
As for visitors returning after the reopening of West Maui, “yet no more” Pascua said.
“If there are no more tourists, there is no more revenue,” he added.
He and his extended family are staying at Kahana Villa.
One local business whose clientele is growing is At Witt’s End, Jasmine’s Boutique in the Kahana Gateway Shopping Center, which has the words Lahaina Strong on their shop windows.
Owner Jasmine Witt said she has seen an increase in business not only because of the phased reopening, but also because there are likely fewer shopping options for both locals and tourists since many businesses burned down in Lahaina, including one of her other West Maui boutiques. She currently has two stores that are still standing.
Witt also won some clients from mainland relief groups helping in West Maui. She added that dealing with the reopening is difficult as things are still very sensitive. She said most customers “they are attentive and ask how they can help” and noted that most of the visitors on the north side of Lahaina are repeat visitors.
At Honokowai, Mitchell also said she’s seen regulars in addition to more local customers since surf shops in Lahaina have either burned down or are still not open after surviving the fire.
“The locals are very supportive,” she said.
She added that the visitors were customers “very compassionate, very empathetic.”
“We are very thankful for the ones we have.”
* Staff writer Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected].