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After the fires, Maui struggled to find a balance between encouraging tourism and exacerbating trauma.

The restaurant where Katie Austin waitressed burned in the wildfire that devastated the historic town of Lahaina in Hawaii this summer.

Two months later, as travelers began returning to nearby resorts, she went to work at another restaurant. But she quickly stopped, exhausted by the constant questions from the guests: was she affected by the fire? Did she know anyone who died?

“You’re at work for eight hours and every 15 minutes a new stranger asks you about the most traumatic day of your life,” Austin said. “It was mind-blowing.”

Governor and Mayor of Hawaii invited tourists to return to the west side of Maui Months after the August 8 fire, at least 100 people were killed and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed. They wanted to benefit from the economic boost that tourists would bring, especially as the end-of-year holidays approached. Gov. Josh Green said tourists visiting the area would “help our people heal.”

But some residents are struggling to cope with the return of an industry requiring workers to be attentive and hospitable, even as they try to care for themselves after losing loved ones, friends, homes and loved ones. community.

Maui is a big island. Many areas, like the posh resorts of Wailea, 30 miles south of Lahaina — where the first season of the hit HBO series “The White Lotus” was filmed — eagerly welcome travelers and their dollars.

Things are more complicated in West Maui. Lahaina is still a pile of charred rubble. More than 2,000 structures burned in the town, most of which were dwellings. Efforts to clean up toxic debris are painfully slow. The area remains closed to all except residents.

The aftermath of the wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023.

Jae C. Hong / AP


Some Native Hawaiians told CBS News they feared being deported from their homeland due to rising housing costs, especially after the fires.

Tensions are peaking over the lack of long-term affordable housing for wildfire evacuees, many of whom work in tourism. Dozens of people camped around the clock to protest at a popular tourist beach in Kaanapali, a few miles north of Lahaina. Last week, hundreds of people marched between two major hotels holding signs reading: “We need housing now!” and “Short term rentals need to go!”

“Because of the opening of tourism, a lot of locals are having to move,” Vance Honda, a local resident who still struggles to find permanent housing, said in an interview with “CBS Mornings” in October. “So it’s been very difficult. There’s a lot of mixed emotions.”

Kaanapali hotels still house about 6,000 fire evacuees, unable to find long-term shelter in Maui’s tight and expensive real estate market. But some began bringing back tourists, and timeshare condo owners returned. In a shopping center, visitors stroll past stores and dine at open-air seaside restaurants.

Austin took a job at a Kaanapali restaurant after the fire, but quit after five weeks. It was painful serving mai tais to people staying in a hotel or vacation rental while her friends were leaving the island because they lacked accommodation, she said.

Servers and many others in the tourism industry often work for tips, which puts them in a difficult position when a customer prods them with questions they don’t want to answer. Even after the Austin restaurant posted a sign asking customers to respect their employees’ privacy, the requests continued.


Should you visit Hawaii now? A tourism official intervenes

“I started telling people, ‘Unless you’re a therapist, I don’t want to talk to you about this,'” she said.

Austin now plans to work for a nonprofit organization that advocates for housing.

Erin Kelley did not lose her home or place of employment, but has been laid off as a bartender at the Sheraton Maui Resort since the fire. The hotel reopened to visitors in late December, but she doesn’t expect to be called back to work until business picks up.

She has mixed feelings. Workers should have a place to live before tourists are welcomed to West Maui, she said, but residents are so dependent on the industry that many will remain unemployed without those same visitors.

“I’m really sad for my friends and I empathize with their situation,” she said. “But we also have to make money”

When she returns to work, Kelley said she won’t want to “talk about everything that’s happened over the last few months.”

More travel destinations will likely face these dilemmas as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

There is no manual for doing this, said Chekitan Dev, a tourism professor at Cornell University. Disaster management – ​​natural and man-made – will need to be part of their business planning.

Andreas Neef, a development professor and tourism researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, suggested that one solution could be to promote organized “voluntourism.” Instead of sunbathing, tourists could visit a part of West Maui that didn’t burn and enlist to help the community.

Properties destroyed by wildfire sit behind signs advertising a nearby Safeway that survived the fire in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Lindsey Wasson / AP


“Bringing tourists back to relax is currently a little unrealistic,” Neef said. “I couldn’t imagine relaxing in a place where you still feel the trauma that affected the place as a whole.”

Many travelers canceled vacation trips to Maui out of respect, said Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association. Visits are down about 20% compared to December 2022, according to state data.

Cancellations are affecting hotels across the island, not just West Maui.

Paulson attributes some of that to confusing messages in national and social media about whether visitors should come. Many people don’t understand the geography of the island or that there are places people can visit outside of West Maui, she said.

One way visitors can help is to remember that they are traveling to a place that has recently experienced significant trauma, said Amory Mowrey, executive director of Maui Recovery, a residential treatment center for mental health and substance abuse. .

“Am I motivated by compassion and empathy or am I just here to take, take, take?” he said.

That’s the approach taken by newlyweds Jordan and Carter Prechel of Phoenix. They kept their reservations in Kihei, about 25 miles south of Lahaina, vowing to be respectful and support local businesses.

“Don’t bombard them with questions,” Jordan said recently while enjoying an afternoon snack in Kaanapali with her husband. “Be aware of what they went through.”

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