Photo taken on Aug. 21, 2023, shows people spending time on an empty beach in Maui, Hawaii, the United States. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
The tourism industry is Maui's economic engine. It accounts for 80 percent of the island's wealth. But after the fire, occupancy at a five-star hotel in South Maui has plunged "dramatically."
by Xinhua writers Tan Jingjing, Gao Shan
MAUI, Hawaii, Aug. 25 (Xinhua) -- The devastating wildfires that ravaged the Hawaiian island of Maui were a bitter blow to the island's tourism industry, but local residents and business leaders expect more tourists will come back as the island embarks on a long road ahead for recovery.
The wildfires, which started on Aug. 8 and have claimed the lives of at least 115 people, are the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century, and the worst natural disaster in Hawaii's history.
The blaze has scorched much of the historic town of Lahaina, a popular tourist spot on Maui and once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Officials released a list of 388 people who remained unaccounted for on Thursday.
The island has seen a sharp drop of tourists since the catastrophe happened.
Photo taken on Aug. 23, 2023, shows a woman on an empty beach in Maui, Hawaii, the United States. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
Officials in Hawaii have urged tourists to avoid traveling to Maui in the wake of the disaster, as many hotel rooms were secured to house thousands of displaced residents and first responders.
Most inbound flights have seen only less than half occupancy.
Prior to Aug. 8, there were 6,000-7,500 domestic arrivals daily to the second largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, reported local news outlet Maui Now, citing the state Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism.
The number dropped to as low as 1,567 on Aug. 12, and in more recent days, daily domestic arrivals hovered above 2,000, according to the report.
Occupancy at a five-star hotel in South Maui has plunged "dramatically" since the fire, a front desk operator told Xinhua.
Photo taken on Aug. 24, 2023, shows rental cars sit unused in a parking lot near Kahului Airport in Maui, Hawaii, the United States. (Xinhua/Gao Shan)
Car rental orders at Maui's airport also decreased substantially after the disaster.
An employee of SIXT car rental company at Maui airport told Xinhua that this location used to see about 150 car rentals each day before the fires, but the number now dropped to about 30.
Many car reservations were cancelled because travelers canceled their trips, or changed their destinations, she said.
"On the one hand, local residents need time to heal from grief. On the other hand, the island's economy depends on the travel industry -- tourists staying away could harm it even more," she added.
The tourism industry is Maui's economic engine. It accounts for 80 percent of the island's wealth, according to the Maui Economic Development Board.
Photo taken on Aug. 23, 2023, shows people spending time at the seaside in Maui, Hawaii, the United States. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
As local restaurants, cafes, bars and shops saw sharp decreases of visitors since the wildfires, many of them have reduced operation hours and employee shifts.
An employee of Hana Harvest, a farm-to-table cafe on the road to Hana, an iconic drive in east Maui, who only gave her first name as Suzanne, told Xinhua the cafe saw 90 percent down of business since the wildfires hit the island, mostly in west Maui. The cafe had to cut employees and reduce business hours from full day to half day.
"But we still want to make tourists feel impressed whenever they visit us, leaving them beautiful memories of Maui," she said.
Haleakala National Park, a national park centered around a volcano located on the island of Maui, is best known for its stunning sunrises, sunsets, beautiful hiking trails and scenic overlooks.
David Yates, a staff of the U.S. National Park Service in Haleakala National Park, told Xinhua the park used to attract about 700 to 800 cars per day with thousands of visitors. Since the devastating wildfires, Haleakala National Park has been closed for two weeks. Camping reservations for all backcountry tent camping and cabins have been cancelled through Aug. 25.
Photo taken on Aug. 23, 2023, shows people sitting on an empty beach during sunset in Maui, Hawaii, the United States. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)
The park closures and camping reservation cancellations were due to personnel shortages. Some employees from Haleakala National Park served as emergency responders at wildfire evacuation shelters and donation stations, Yates told Xinhua.
The wildfires also destroyed many of the artifacts and cultural sites on Maui that tell the island's history.
"We've lost four museums," said Kimberly Flook, deputy executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, out of at least 14 museums and sites the group oversees. "If you're into environmentalism, if you're into surfing, if you're into history, something was lost in all those ways."
As Maui embarks on a long road ahead for rebuilding, officials have to wrestle with how to balance residents' immediate needs for housing and resources, time for them to recover from grief, and the island's long-term economic health.
Earlier this week, Hawaii Governor Josh Green continued to emphasize the need to avoid West Maui at this time, as well as the importance of travel to the rest of Maui and other Hawaiian islands and the economic impact it has on the well-being of Maui and its recovery. ■