Community members hold hands in a prayer circle at a “Lahaina Strong” gathering in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
Paele Kiakona is not ready to go back to work. Still reeling after August wildfires ravaged his hometown of Lahaina, he doesn’t want to serve tourists, pouring brut Champagne or topping their mai tais with honey-liliko’i foam.
“I’ve seen people dead on the street,” Kiakona said. “My grandma’s house is gone. My whole town died.”
The 28-year-old Hawaii native who worked as a bartender at a farm-to-table restaurant north of Lahaina is wary of fielding questions, including what he says is now the ultimate dreaded icebreaker: “Did you lose your house in the fire?”
In this moment, he said, visitors aren’t the ones who need his care.
“Our aloha is reserved for our family right now,” Kiakona said. “It’s not just endless aloha.”
Hawaii is famous for its “aloha spirit,” a concept rooted in Native Hawaiian culture that long ago was commodified into the guiding philosophy for resorts and other businesses catering to tourists. More than a chill tropical greeting — an exotic salutation used in place of hello and goodbye — aloha is defined by state law as “mutual regard and affection” and extending “warmth in caring with no obligation in return.”
It’s a spirit that’s been in abundance among locals as people helped each other after the fire. But as tourists return to West Maui, edging closer to the charred ashes of a disaster in their search for paradise, some Hawaiians are reassessing what “aloha” means to them, and how much of it, exactly, they want to give to strangers when so many in their community have lost homes and loved ones.
They’re not withdrawing aloha, they say, just redefining and redistributing it.
“Aloha has commercially been sold as mai tais and a good time, and that the arms will be welcome and ready for you,” said Kaliko Kaauamo, 37, a taro farmer and curriculum writer for the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. “Aloha, it’s not always happy and sunshine and rainbows … sometimes having aloha is screaming and crying and being there to hold people in their grief.”
Ninety-eight people died from the fire that raged through the historic town of Lahaina on Aug. 8, destroying or damaging more than 2,200 structures. This month, the state reopened West Maui, even though many blue-collar residents say it is too soon to greet visitors with warm smiles, alohas and fresh flower leis.
Hawaiian hospitality is a core part of Maui’s economy. With nearly 40% of the island’s gross domestic product linked to tourism, Gov. Josh Green has argued that thousands of jobs and the region’s economy would be jeopardized if West Maui resorts remained shuttered to visitors. But a significant number of workers say they should not be expected to welcome tourists at the hotels and condos north of Lahaina until they have schools and stable housing.
More than 6,800 Lahaina residents are sheltering in hotel rooms or rental condos with no firm reassurance of how long they will be able to stay.
“We made our plea. You decided not to listen,” Kiakona said. “The blood is on your hands.”
As one West Maui resident wrote on a sign to protest the reopening: “FRESH OUT OF ALOHA.”
Tension has long existed between Hawaii locals and visitors.
In 1778, British explorer Capt. James Cook was welcomed when he anchored off the Hawaiian islands by locals eager to trade cuttlefish, breadfruit and pigs for nails and iron tools. But he and his sailors eventually overstayed their welcome, depleting supplies and spreading venereal diseases. Cook was eventually stabbed to death.
In the early 1800s, Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii, encouraged by Native refugees who had fled after the brutal wars of King Kamehameha’s conquest and urged Westerners to evangelize the islands.