The resorts of West Maui, including Kaanapali Beach shown here, will reopen to tourists Oct. 8. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)
Kelly Schulz still remembers the letter she received from a disaster victim outraged that tourists were coming to a community still suffering from a disaster.
It was after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, and Schulz, who led the city’s tourism marketing effort after the hurricane, recalls tour companies were bussing visitors into the Lower Ninth Ward, a mostly Black neighborhood that suffered the brunt of the floods after Katrina.
Schulz, who is senior vice president for communications and public relations at New Orleans & Co., the region’s destination management organization, said she quelled the letter writer’s anger by explaining that Schulz’s family also had lost everything when the storm flooded her hometown of Chalmette.
Schulz shared her experiences this week with Hawaii hospitality executives facing a similar challenge: How to market West Maui as a tourist destination when residents, including many industry workers, are still suffering trauma and grief.
The question is so pressing that nearly 70 tourism executives and others tuned in on Monday for Schulz’s webinar, which was titled “Restoring Tourism After Disaster,” sponsored by the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International.
West Maui resorts have been closed to tourists since wildfires razed most of Lahaina on Aug. 8. That will change on Oct. 8, when the region is expected to begin reopening under a phased approach Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced on Wednesday.
“Our priorities have focused on the well-being of our people and that will continue to be critically important,” Mayor Bissen said in a statement.
Tourism executives are hoping for a desperately needed boost to the island-wide tourism economy. Maui has suffered a decline of an estimated $13 million a day in revenue from tourists since the fires.
But it’s not just about money. Industry leaders say they recognize Maui is still grieving. And they’re tailoring messages to let visitors know that, while West Maui might be open for business, it’s not a free for all. Tour buses won’t be shuttling visitors to gawk at Lahaina, for instance, said Kalani Kaanaana, chief brand officer for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“For us, we recognize the incredible loss. It’s devastating. And we don’t have words to describe that loss,” Kaanaana said.
But he also said Maui’s long-term health depends on visitors returning.
“How do you prevent the secondary disaster, which is the economic one later?” he said.
Tourism is vital to Maui’s economy. In a recent report titled “After the Maui Wildfires: The road ahead,” the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization quantified the economic significance of the fires and the closing of West Maui to tourists.
West Maui’s resorts, including Kaanapali and Kapalua, “supply more than 10,000 rooms in hotels, timeshares and vacation rentals, about half of the island’s total visitor accommodation capacity,” UHERO reported.
Immediately after the fires, visitors island-wide dropped by about 75%, impacting businesses across Maui.
Large resorts are hardly the only businesses affected, Kaanaana said. Small businesses, vendors, farms supplying produce – an ecosystem of small businesses – also have suffered, he said.