Concerned hospitality officials urge visitors to come to Maui

With massive cancellations and occupancy plummeting, hospitality leaders in Hawaii are putting the word out that hotels and resorts untouched by the West Maui wildfires remain open and eager to welcome guests.

“We’re trying to be very affirmative about the fact that with the exception of West Maui, the rest of Maui is open,” said Mufi Hannemann, CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. 

He added that while there were some initial “missteps” in terms of the state’s cohesive messaging, state officials and other key stakeholders “from the governor to the mayor to the Hawaii Tourism Authority,” have since taken a unanimous stance when it comes to encouraging travel to other parts of island, including Wailea, Kihei, Makena and Hana. 

This unified front comes as Maui experiences a stark drop in tourists in the wake of the devastating fires. 

“We are seeing cancellations across the board,” Hannemann said. “Last we checked, Maui had dipped to about 57% occupancy, while statewide, we’re at about 80% occupancy. And, obviously, the number of passenger arrivals also has taken a steep decrease. It’s a very challenging time.”

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Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, is similarly sounding the alarm over the island’s sudden tourism slowdown. 

“We’re very concerned, because the rental cars are already piling up at the airport, just like they did when the pandemic first started,” said Paulson. “I’ve talked to a couple of general managers, and they’re seeing massive cancellations and very low occupancy. And planes are flying in, but they’re not full.” 

Soon, fewer planes will fly in. United reduced its service to the island by about half for September and October. 

The stakes are high for Maui, which has an outsize economic dependence on tourism, Hannemann said. The Maui Economic Development Board estimates that approximately 70% of every dollar in Maui is generated either directly or indirectly by the visitor industry.

“Maui is the county most dependent on tourism, so it will be devastating if people don’t steadily come back,” Hannemann said. “It’d be naive to presume that everybody in Hawaii is pro-tourism, but this is a very different environment that we’re operating under. We’re seeing more local residents, on the news and on social media, saying, ‘I need to go back to work.’ We need to take a balanced approach while we grieve.”

Paulson similarly underscored tourism’s crucial role. “So many livelihoods depend on that economic driver,” said Paulson. “Our hotels and resorts are ready to welcome people, and I think the overwhelming message needs to be about responsible, respectful tourism.”

Hotels are housing evacuees

West Maui — which includes hard-hit Lahaina as well as nearby Napili, Kaanapali and Kapalua — remains off-limits to tourists, with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green issuing an emergency proclamation strongly discouraging all nonessential travel to the region through Oct. 17.

Properties in Napili, Kaanapali and Kapalua were generally spared any structural damage, with many resuming operations in order to shelter their own displaced employees and accommodate evacuees, first responders and emergency workers. 

As of Aug. 22, Paulson estimated that hotels across Kaanapali and Kapalua were housing around 3,000 evacuees and frontline personnel.

According to a state press release, the Royal Lahaina Resort in Kaanapali was the first hotel to receive survivors, while Paulson confirmed that the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, Kaanapali Alii Resort and Kaanapali Beach Club have also offered emergency accommodations.

Additionally, a spokesperson for Outrigger Resorts & Hotels reported that the Outrigger Kaanapali Beach Resort and Outrigger Honua Kai Resort & Spa have both made large room blocks available to evacuees as part of the Hawaii Fire Relief Housing Program, with Hawaii Vacation Condos by Outrigger accommodations expected to soon join the mix. 

“Everybody has been pitching in and assisting with recovery efforts,” said Paulson. “We are taking care of displaced residents and our team members.”

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Hannemann, meanwhile, expressed some concern over the potential financial hardship ahead for West Maui properties currently engaged in emergency response.

“They’re doing their best to keep everybody on the payroll and maintain their benefits, but after a while, it’s going to be very challenging, especially if they can’t open up anytime soon,” Hannemann said. “So, we’re going to be turning over every rock of federal assistance to see how we can get some money to all these properties. They’re going to need money to keep people on the payroll and working.”

Robert Silk contributed to this report.

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