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‘Our grief is still fresh’: Locals petition to delay tourism reopening after Hawaii wildfires

Lahaina residents hold signs at the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on 3 October 2023.
Lahaina residents hold signs at the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on 3 October 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy
Copyright AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy
By Euronews Travel with AP
Published on
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Hawaii has changed. ‘You shouldn’t be there expecting people to serve you your mai tais and your food,’ says one local.

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Hawaiians have delivered a petition asking to delay tourism reopening following the summer wildfires.

Residents from fire-stricken Lahaina delivered their appeal to Hawaii Governer Josh Green on Tuesday. They oppose plans to reopen a portion of West Maui to tourism starting this weekend, saying the grieving community is not ready to welcome back visitors.

The petition, signed by 3,517 people from West Maui zip codes, comes amid a fierce and anguished debate over when travellers should return to the region. It ishome to the historic town of Lahaina that was destroyed in the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century.

At least 98 people died in the 8 August blaze and more than a dozen are still missing. The first phase of the plan to reopen Maui to tourists begins on Sunday, the two-month anniversary of the disaster.

Though many residents say they are not ready, others say they need tourism so they can work in hotels and restaurants to earn a living.

'Our grief is still fresh': Residents say they should be consulted on Hawaii's reopening

“We are not mentally nor emotionally ready to welcome and serve our visitors. Not yet,” restaurant bartender Pa‘ele Kiakona said at a news conference before several dozen people delivered the petition. “Our grief is still fresh and our losses too profound.”

Tamara Paltin, who represents Lahaina on the Maui County Council, said two months may seem like a long time, but she noted Lahaina residents didn’t have reliable cellphone service or internet for the first month after the fire and have been coping with uncertain housing. She said many people, including herself, can’t sleep through the night.

Paltin urged the governor to decide on when to reopen after consulting residents in an “open and transparent way.”

Several dozen people dressed in red T-shirts went to Green’s koa wood-paneled executive chambers to deliver the signatures in person. Green was not in his office, so his director of constituent services, Bonnelley Pa’uulu, accepted the box on his behalf. Altogether, 14,000 people signed the petition as of midday Tuesday.

'Local people will have to leave if they don’t have jobs'

Green told the Hawaii News Now interview program 'Spotlight Now' shortly afterward that he was “utterly sympathetic” to people's suffering. But he said more than 8,000 people have lost their jobs due to the fire and getting people back to work was part of recovering.

“It’s my job as governor to support them, to be thoughtful about all people and to make sure Maui survives, because people will otherwise go bankrupt and have to leave the island, have to move out of Maui,” he said. “Local people - these are middle-class people that lived in Lahaina - will have to leave if they don’t have jobs.”

Maui, which is famous around the world for its beaches and waterfalls, is among the most tourism-dependent islands in Hawaii.

The number of visitors plummeted 70 per cent after the fire when Green and tourism officials discouraged “non-essential travel” to the island. University of Hawaii economists estimate unemployment will top 10 per cent on Maui, compared to 2.5 per cent in July. The resulting economic downturn is expected to depress state tax revenues.

When is West Maui due to reopen?

A few weeks after the fire, the tourism industry began urging travellers to respectfully visit parts of Maui unaffected by the blaze, like Wailea and Makena. Then last month Green announced that West Maui - a long expanse of coastline encompassing Lahaina and hotels and condos to its north - would reopen to tourists on 8 October.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen last week narrowed the geographic scope of this plan, saying that only the northernmost section of West Maui - a 5-kilometre stretch including the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua - would resume taking tourists. The rest of the region, where most of Lahaina’s evacuees are staying, would reopen at a later, unspecified date.

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The first phase to be reopened under the mayor’s plan - from Kapalua to the Kahana Villa - is 11 to 16 kilometres and a 15- to 20-minute drive north of the area that burned. Bissen said second and third phases, both covering zones closer to the burned parts of Lahaina, would reopen after officials assess earlier phases.

Green said only one or two hotels would reopen on Sunday, calling it a “gentle start”.

AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy
Pa'ele Kiakona, a restaurant bartender from West Maui, walks at the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on 3 October 2023.AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy

Some residents aren't ready to return to work

Restaurant bartender Kiakona said he's among those not ready to go back to work. He said he doesn't want to constantly be asked if he lost his home and to have “somebody consistently reminding you of the disaster that you just went through.”

Green said people who aren't ready to go back to work won't need to. He said they would continue to receive benefits and housing.

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“But what I say to them is think of your neighbour or think of the business next door to you,” Green said. “Or think of the impact of having only, say, 40 per cent of the travellers that we normally have to Maui."

The governor said a lack of tourism would make it harder for the state to rebuild the elementary school that burned in the fire and provide residents with healthcare coverage.

Charles Nahale, a musician who lost all his gigs singing and playing the ukulele and guitar for tourists, recounted recently seeing tourists at a restaurant a few miles from the burn zone. They appeared oblivious and unsympathetic to those around them, he said.

“You shouldn’t be there expecting people to serve you your mai tais and your food.”
Charles Nahale

“This is not a normal tourist destination like it was prior to the fire," he said by telephone from Lahaina. “You shouldn’t be there expecting people to serve you your mai tais and your food.”

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Nahale said grieving was more critical to him than getting back to work.

“What is more important to me is that these thousands, including me, have the time to heal,” he said. “What’s more important to me is that we have the time to be normal again.”

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