Maui travel and the ethics of tourism

Hawaii’s historic wildfires have caused devastation throughout Western Maui, and more than 1,000 people are missing while another 100 have died, per Axios. Because of this, locals have been vocal about restricting tourism, especially while search and rescue operations are underway, encouraging tourists to cancel their trips. However, many Hawaii natives have been against tourism in the state for a while, arguing that the industry harms local communities and is largely unsustainable.

How have the fires affected Hawaii tourism?

In the wake of the fires, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) has urged visitors to forgo non-essential travel to Maui. “Visitors in West Maui have largely heeded the call to leave the island, and hotels and other accommodations are needed for displaced residents and emergency workers,” he said in a statement. The tourism industry has been helping locals affected by the fires. “Hawaii is obviously all about the people and all about family,” owner of Hawaiian helicopter tour company Rainbow Helicopters Nicole Battjes told Axios. “The direct aid has been really powerful.” Companies still providing tourist activities have been criticized.

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Many Maui residents are also employed by the tourism industry, which makes preventing travel a “fine balance,” T. Ilihia Gionson, a public affairs officer for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told The Guardian. “For so many people to face economic uncertainty or challenges, on top of those who have lost everything in the fire – it compounds the issues and prolongs the recovery.” Many residents are also upset at the continued tourism to Maui, with one woman telling BBC, “The same waters that our people just died in three days ago are the same waters the very next day these visitors — tourists — were swimming in.”

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Travel to the other Hawaiian islands is still running as usual, however, the Hawaii Tourism Authority has urged “visitors to be especially mindful and respectful in our island home as our community continues through this tragedy.”

How has tourism affected Hawaii?

Tourists and Hawaiian locals have been at odds for some time now, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic due to the large influx of people following the lockdown. Climate change has caused problems for the state’s resources — and while locals have faced water restrictions and fines for non-essential water use, resorts did not face such restrictions, per The Guardian. Sea level rise is threatening the state’s iconic beaches. Tourists have also caused harm to Hawaii’s coral reefs. 

In addition, the Indigenous community has criticized Hawaiian tourism, specifically to the resort town Lahaina, which was once the burial place of the Hawaiian royal family and the first capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, The Guardian continued. “I think the fire was an acute trauma, but it’s really just a punctuation point on the injustice that local people, especially Kānaka Maoli [Native Hawaiians], and immigrants have faced for generations,” said Kaniela Ing, national director of the Green New Deal Network.

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Despite this, tourism is Hawaii’s largest industry and is responsible for 80% of the state’s wealth, Reuters reported. “You’re kind of raised to hate tourists,” a hotel worker told BBC. “But that’s really the only way to work on the islands. If it’s not hospitality then it’s construction.”

How can you help the locals?

If you had a trip planned to Maui in the coming weeks, the Hawaii Tourism Authority has advised visitors “to consider rescheduling their travel plans for a later time,” The Washington Post reported. While the rest of the islands are open for travel, the resources may be necessary to rebuild Lahaina and the rest of West Maui. “We don’t want to overstress their system, especially Oahu,” Denise Ambrusko-Maida, owner of Travel Brilliant, told the Post. You can also donate to organizations like the Hawaii Community Foundation, which is raising funds for recovery.

During trips, you can also opt to support local businesses, clean up after yourself, and be mindful of the environment, per Insider. “Going forward, I don’t know if it’s less tourism, but I think more mindful tourism,” Kehaulani Watson of the Native Hawaiian organization ʻĀina Momona told The Guardian. “We have to think about enhancing and evolving the visitor experience to be one that invites people who can contribute to Hawaii, as opposed to just taking from us.”

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