Hawaii Travel Update: Breaking Down The Debate Over The October 8th Reopening Of West Maui

It’s been ten days since Hawaii’s governor announced that West Maui would reopen to tourists on October 8th, but the debate seems to just be heating up now.

While there was initial pushback on the announcement, things escalated this weekend when a petition requesting the government to reconsider garnered thousands of signatures online and caught the eye of local media outlets.

Wondering where we are and how we got here? Let’s take a look at both sides of the situation.

The Case For the Reopening on October 8th

In planning the reopening of West Maui, the government has said multiple times that it comes in response to economic realities, where a failure to reopen would cause deepening unemployment (currently, thousands on Maui are unemployed) as well as the continued loss of tourism revenue that would cause further damage to Maui.

In making his decision, Governor Josh Green cited calls from businesses and tourism partners, who cannot make a living with the area closed and so few visitors coming to Maui.

“I know what a terrible disaster that was. But now we’re in crisis mode,” one business owner told the AP. “If we can’t keep the people that have jobs employed, how are they going to help family members and friends that lost everything?”

Recently, the state estimated that it would lose $2 billion in revenue as a result of the wildfire.

The government has also said that its desire to build a road map to recovery, with specific dates, is designed to bring hope for the future, as opposed to the pandemic recovery, when timelines were vague and people were unsure of when things would return to normal.

“Beginning October 8, all travel restrictions will end and West Maui will be open to visitors again, so people from Hawaiʻi and around the world can resume travel to this special place and help it begin to recover economically,” Green said in a statement. “This difficult decision is meant to bring hope for recovery to the families and businesses on Maui that have been so deeply affected in every way by the disaster.”

The Case Against the Reopening on October 8th

However, some residents feel the reopening date is too soon because it leaves displaced residents in a state of limbo while prioritizing visitors. They also say that many residents aren’t ready to go back to work due to feelings of confliction and grief.

More than 7,000 displaced residents who lost their homes in the wildfire are currently staying in temporary lodging, including West Maui hotels, with no set plan for their relocation or long-term housing.

“Once I heard October 8, I was in shock,” one grieving Lahaina resident, who lost both his home and loved ones in the wildfire, told KHON2. “And it turned to anger because we were making accommodations for tourism, but we cannot even make accommodations for displaced residents such as such as myself.”

“I don’t have long term housing, I have a battle with my mortgage, that I still have to pay on a house that I no longer own,” he said.

Though the plan is to separate displaced residents and tourists at different hotels in the coming weeks, it is possible they overlap, setting up an uncomfortable situation. Other residents could be located to long-term housing in apartments or Airbnbs, but all that is still in the process of being arranged.

Residents discussed several other issues that should be handled before welcoming back visitors, including:

  • More than a month has passed since the fire, and Lahaina residents still have not been allowed access back to their properties – or whatever is left of them – to sort through, look for personal items, access damage, and grieve.
  • There is still a lack of clarity about clean water in and around Lahaina.
  • Displaced families need long-term housing solutions, as well as long-term schooling solutions for their children. Many displaced residents may be forced to drive their children long distances to school.
  • There are still dozens of people missing and unaccounted for. As of this writing, the number of people missing is at 66.

Residents, specifically those who lost their home or loved ones in the fire, would like to see the reopening dates pushed back until the above issues can be resolved clearly.

What’s Next?

If nothing changes, the reopening of West Maui will go on as planned in less than three weeks.

The fact that both sides can make reasonable arguments means we will probably see the passion increase, not decrease, as we get closer to the end of the month.

Though the government can do what it wishes in terms of a reopening date, it also seems the residents hold the utmost power. After all, they are the ones who will interact with and serve visitors, and in this way, they are the ones who will likely determine the on-the-ground experience had by visitors.

The government would be wise to appease residents as much as possible, as it would be very easy for disgruntled residents to be unpleasant towards visitors, especially if they are sharing the same hotels.

The hope is that many of the outstanding concerns of residents can be addressed prior to the reopening.

For example, perhaps the government can successfully relocate displaced residents in the next two weeks to the point where they feel more comfortable inviting visitors back.

For now, I expect there to be continued dialogue in the media, with both sides making their case.

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