West Maui Reopens. Should You Host Your Next Meeting There?
The islands of Hawai'i are known for beautiful weather, stunning views and amazing local culture, which is why it’s also no surprise that Hawai'i is one of the most visited destinations in the U.S.—over 9 million people traveled to the islands in 2022. But when wildfires began to sweep the island of Maui in August 2023, the island life and aloha spirit many visitors come searching for was instead replaced by fear and heartbreak.
Devastation and destruction tore through the island as thousands of native Hawaiians evacuated their homes and businesses to escape the flames. The official death toll is currently 97, as of mid-October and the final number of those missing still may not be known for months.
The fires mainly affected the historic city of Lahaina in West Maui, and while the cause of the fires has not been officially determined, the resulting destruction makes it impossible to forget that the flames sparked somehow and somewhere. The Maui incident is the fifth deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, and the governor of Hawai'i, Josh Green, has called the wildfires the worst natural disaster to ever occur in Hawai'i.
The wildfires damaged or destroyed over 2,200 structures, 96% of which were local residential structures. The fires also damaged the Lahaina Historic District, which contained many important landmarks that represented the history of the Hawaiian people and the Kingdom of Hawai'i. The total monetary cost of the wildfire damage has been estimated to be up to $6 billion.
But even through tragedy, the hospitality industry has stepped up, with thousands of displaced residents finding shelter in Maui hotels and organizations like MPI and the Meetings Industry Fund providing aid to those affected by the fires. If you’re wondering whether you should cancel or keep your meeting on Maui, we checked in with locals for their input and guidance.
Traveling to Maui Right Now: Disrespectful or Vital?
West Maui has recently begun welcoming tourists again, just two months after the wildfires. And while thousands of West Maui residents are still displaced, Hawai'i's government is pushing to reopen the tourism industry. The biggest question on many meeting and event planners' minds is, “Should I be traveling to Maui?” and the overwhelming answer from almost everyone on the island seems to be “absolutely.” Whether you’re a planner scheduling a large meeting or just looking for a beautiful destination to visit, the majority of Maui and the other islands are absolutely ready for tourists. While it is still controversal whether or not people should visit West Maui and Lahaina specifically, the rest of Maui, and the other Hawai'i are open for business as usual.
In fact, visiting other parts of Maui and the other Hawai'i islands might be the best thing you can do to aid West Maui’s recovery. It is estimated that 70% of Maui’s economy is based on tourism, and the wildfires have already put a lot of economic strain on the islands. Maui can’t sustain itself on donations and relief funds forever, and the best way you can assist West Maui’s recovery is by helping to revitalize the local economy.
“What the fire didn’t destroy, an empty and deserted island will,” said Sherry Duong, executive director at Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau. “We need our visitors to know that only a small part of the island was directly impacted by the fire, the rest of Maui is still accessible to visitors and should be visited.”
While the wildfires have mainly affected the areas of Lahaina and West Maui, the rest of the island is feeling the devastation. Specifically, the areas of Lahaina and West Maui are currently inaccessible to tourists due to being the most affected by the wildfires. What’s important to note is that West Maui only makes up about 15% of the total island of Maui. So, while it is still important to remember that the people of Maui are grieving the destruction of their home and history, tourism and meetings are vital to keeping Maui alive and recovering.
Remain Respectful While Traveling
While many in the hospitality industry are heavily encouraging travel to the islands, it is always important to keep in mind that the islands of Hawai'i are someone’s home, and that travel should be done in a respectful manner to mitigate any potential harm that might come from traveling to the islands.
Lahela Spencer is the former Hawaiian culture specialist at Hilton Waikoloa Village and now runs a business called Mohalu Hawai'i, which teaches people how to make the traditional lei flower necklaces. Spencer stresses the importance of remaining respectful, and that while tourism is welcomed and valued in Hawai'i, it’s important to be aware of your impact.
“When you come here, you’re leaving a footprint. Whether that means that you’re using water, or you’re leaving trash, or you’re using certain sunscreens that may not agree with the reefs,” Spencer said. “I think the first thing to consider is how would you want someone visit your home or your house? How would you want a visitor to act? That’s the mindset you should take with you when you travel.”
How to Donate to West Maui’s Recovery
While it might be tempting to try and donate physical items such as clothes or food to help the West Maui recovery effort, in some instances donating those materials may cause more harm than good.
“It got to a point where it was like ‘OK, we have enough clothes, stop sending us clothes,’” Spencer said. “Sometimes our heart is in the right place, and we want to contribute and help, but in the end, it may actually cause more grief for the people that are receiving it.”
While the items that are needed and what is able to be accepted changes on a frequent basis, Spencer said, there are community and mutual aid organizations set up and run by the people in West Maui to provide help to those who need it the most.
The best way to donate is by giving money to the organizations who are on the ground in West Maui that can use that money to provide the maximum amount of help and relief as possible. Spencer recommended many organizations that welcome monetary donations that are doing impactful work on the ground in Maui and the other islands. These include:
- Maui Ola
- Hawai'i Community Foundation
- Council For Native Hawaiian Advancement
- Maui Nui Strong
- Peoples Fund of Maui
- Hawai'i Food Bank
The Hawai'i Tourism Authority’s Board of Directors recently approved $2.6 million in funding to launch the Maui Marketing Recovery Plan aimed to rebuild responsible travel demand to Maui.
While it might feel at times that traveling to Maui or the islands of Hawai'i in general is disrespectful, it is clear that the people living and working on the island rely on tourism and patronage of their businesses to survive. While you should donate if you are able, maybe consider hosting your next meeting or event in Maui or one of the other islands. As long as you and your attendees are respectful and open to learning, the people of Hawai'i are ready to welcome you to their island with an “aloha.”