Next month, West Maui will officially welcome back tourists to the island on the two-month anniversary of the devastating wildfires that left 97 dead.
On September 10 Hawai’i Governor Josh Green signed an emergency proclamation [ PDF ] that will end the area’s strong discouragement of travelers on October 8 — at least in part because the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimated that the island has lost more than $350 million since the fire.
The state, and numerous small businesses within it, massively depend on tourism. The University of Hawai’i estimated that roughly a quarter of the state’s economy is represented by tourism, including 216,000 jobs and yielding nearly $17.8 billion in tourist spending. Tourism generates an estimated 80 percent of Maui County’s economy specifically, and that’s not likely to increase with airlines still cutting flights to the island.
“Without this influx of cash, a distressing number of local businesses will certainly close for good,” according to the University of Hawai’i.
The residents of Hawai’i have a love-hate relationship with tourists. While the industry may support a large chunk of the state’s economy, around two-thirds of residents hold anti-tourism sentiments, in part because Hawai’i is still struggling to reopen businesses that shuttered during the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the contradictory messaging of the state being run for tourists at the expense of local people.
The complications in firefighters’ response to the wildfire disaster demonstrated some of these dynamics playing out in real-time. As firefighters tried to get to the fire and worked to contain it, hoses ran dry and state officials delayed releasing water from a nearby reservoir. In the weeks since, a centuries-old fight has rekindled between developers and Native Hawaiians over who owns Maui’s water.
Wildfires igniting already-present tensions between locals and tourists isn’t new, especially in communities that have come to rely on encouraging travel. A growing body of research has found that wildfires pose an “existential” threat to the tourism industry as a whole.
Greece and Italy fear a collapse of their entire tourism industry as wildfire and heat waves ravage the Mediterranean. Portugal’s tourism may be out $38 million annually by 2030 because of worsening wildland fires. Fires throughout California’s Sierra Nevada region have led to an increasingly damaging tourism image for the area as a whole.
Numerous studies point toward wildfires continuing to intensify and becoming more widespread unless emissions are reduced. As Maui continues its balancing act of catering to tourists while leaving its locals calling for a more diversified economy, it will also have to reckon with wildfires becoming a more common occurrence in its visitors’ vacations.
“I can say that if we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to be able to afford to live on Maui,” Green said in a recent press release. “The land of Lāhainā is reserved for its people as they return and rebuild.”