Maui businesses face mixed messages on tourism after wildfires

Some businesses on Hawaii's Maui Island have cut back on staff and reduced their operating hours in the wake of the deadly wildfires, with the state government's guidance to travelers evolving as recovery efforts proceed.

In emergency proclamations issued in the days after the fires broke out on Aug. 8, the office of Hawaii Gov. Josh Green asked tourists to leave the affected area as soon as they could safely do so, and "strongly discouraged" nonessential travel to the island. Tourists heeded the messages, with more than 46,000 people leaving Maui by Aug. 13, according to local media reports.

"(Customers) are down 50 percent at least," Penny Putnam, general manager of Moose McGillycuddy's, told Kyodo News of the bar and restaurant chain's Kihei location in West Maui.

Putnam, 64, said the lack of business has forced her to cut staff hours for about 100 employees at three locations. The establishment has had a local presence since 1980, with the Kihei location opening in 2005.

"We don't want everybody to go back to unemployment again. We just got out of all of that. We're just rebuilding from COVID."

An estimated 2,002 passengers flew to Maui on Sunday, compared to 6,852 on the same day last year, marking over a 70 percent decrease, according to Hawaii's official tourism data.

Tourism drives Maui's economy. Around 70 percent of every dollar can be traced back to visitors, according to the Maui Economic Development Board.

Hawaii's governor last week shifted his tone on tourism during a press conference, saying visitors are welcome in Maui but should not visit the west side.

"What we are saying now is travel should not be to West Maui, but the other parts of Maui are safe and the rest of the state of course is safe," Green said.

"We want people to travel to the state to the extent that they are not impacting the hard work that these extraordinary people are doing," he added, referring to first responders.

As of Monday, 115 fatalities have been confirmed. According to Green, more than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for.

Darren Byler, 37, general manager of Cafe O'lei Kihei, a local restaurant that opened its first location in 1997, had to lay off about 25 percent of his 200 staff.

"I don't know if it is ever too late...but the damage has definitely been done," Byler said.

Customer turnout has dropped by 50 percent, he estimated, noting it has been worse at his Maui Tropical Plantation location in Waikapu in central Maui, which caters primarily to tourists.

"I think it is an opportunity to showcase the other beautiful sides of the island," Byler said. "We have a lot of beauty to share and the best way to help us with our recovery is to come and enjoy this beautiful island."

Don Russel, 60, a tourist from Phoenix, Arizona, enjoyed sunbathing on an empty beach this past weekend. He had made arrangements to island-hop from Kauai to Maui before the wildfires devastated the Lahaina community.

"We still came here and we just stay where we are, we don't go to the west side" of the island, Russel said. "You can't cut off the whole island, everyone else still expects to survive."

© Kyodo News