In the first few days after an inferno leveled the Hawaiian town of Lahaina, the directive to tourists was emphatic: Stay away. And tourists, with a few exceptions, complied.
As it turns out, maybe too well.
Nearly a month after the fire, Maui, a tourism-dependent island with a hotel room for every seven and a half households, is hosting fewer visitors than at any point since the coronavirus pandemic. Pristine beaches sit empty, even those that are many miles from Lahaina. Hundreds of unused rental cars are parked in fields near the island’s main airport in Kahului, where planes arrive half full. Beds are made and pillows are fluffed in hotel rooms where no one has laid a head in weeks.
All of it means that the workers who form the backbone of Hawaii’s welcoming aloha spirit are now struggling. In some of Maui’s fanciest resorts, employees are being sent home with no work and no pay.
“Right now, it’s hard to think about the future and if we’re going to make next month’s rent,” said Owen Wegner, a line cook at the Grand Wailea resort in South Maui, some 30 miles outside the burn zone. He has only been called in to work two shifts in the past two weeks.
Mr. Wegner, 20, was born and raised in Lahaina and used to play a snare drum during parades down Front Street, the town’s once-idyllic commercial thoroughfare along the ocean. The fire on Aug. 8 turned the street into a graveyard of charred cars and burned buildings — and became the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century, claiming at least 115 lives. Among them was Mr. Wegner’s grandmother, Lynn Manibog, who had helped raise him.
Mr. Wegner has had almost no time to grieve. Instead, he has been trying to figure out how to provide for his partner, Sabrina Kaitlyn Cuadro; their 1-year-old son and their daughter, who is due to be born on Sept. 5. That’s also the last day they can pay their monthly rent before late fees kick in.
“Me and her are under a lot of stress,” Mr. Wegner said.
The implosion of Maui’s economy, of which tourism comprises about 40 percent, has been swift and severe. State economic officials estimate that the island is seeing about 4,250 fewer visitors each day than normal, representing a loss of $9 million a day. In South Maui, seven of every 10 hotel rooms sit empty, compared with about two in 10 during normal times.
The plummeting numbers follow contradictory pleas from Hawaii’s politicians and residents. The governor and lieutenant governor issued emergency proclamations in the first days after the fire, saying that all nonessential travel to Maui was “strongly discouraged.”
Days later, Gov. Josh Green issued a revised order limiting its scope to the region of the fire, West Maui, which makes up only a small portion of the island. But tourism officials fear that prospective visitors may not be familiar with the island’s geography. Now, many politicians, workers and industry leaders are making a new plea to tourists: Come back.
“We stress that West Maui is not currently the place for people to go, but the rest of Maui is open,” Richard Bissen, the Maui County mayor, said this week.
Jerry Gibson, the president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, said he had been trying to get the message out that Maui’s south side — home to luxury hotels, condos and restaurants — was eager for the arrival of suitcase-lugging families.
“The south side of Maui is wide open,” Mr. Gibson said. “Tragically, right now, because of the earlier message, tourism is not coming in there.”
Maui residents have remained consistent that visitors should avoid all of West Maui, which continues to be a hub for displaced families. Hotels there are housing more than 5,000 people who are not tourists, including families who lost homes, government relief officials, aid organizations and cleanup crews. Locals have also warned people against clogging up the highway in a quest to see the destroyed town of Lahaina. They remind tourists elsewhere on the island to be sensitive to the fact that people they encounter may have lost their own homes or have connections to people who perished.
There has long been tension between Hawaii locals and tourists, and some residents have argued that the sharp drop in revenue Maui now faces is a sign that the state should prioritize residents over tourists and rely on more sustainable industries.
Chris West, president of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which also represents workers in the tourism and pineapple industries, said that he and other Native Hawaiians have complicated feelings about tourists, but that their return was needed to sustain the economy.