West Maui Reopens to Tourists Amid Fears of Displacement

The devastation of the fire that ripped through West Maui on Aug. 8 is hard to comprehend. It killed at least 97 people and damaged or destroyed 2,200 structures, and the estimated cost to rebuild is $5.5 billion.

In the first few days after the fires, stars including Jason Momoa and Mia Tyler implored tourists to stay away. In the weeks since, many have, even as most of Maui’s hotels remained open. According to The New York Times, on Oct. 9 — the day after West Maui began a staged reopening — there were more than 4,500 arrivals in Maui, down 27 percent from the same day in 2019.

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On Nov. 1, with the reopening of the West Maui section that stretches from Kahana to Ka’anapali, only the devastated town of Lahaina remains closed.

“We’re excited to welcome back visitors as they not only aid in the recovery of our local economy, but also reinforce the spirit of aloha within our community,” says Ka’anapali Beach Resort Association executive director Shelley Kekuna.

The reopening, however, has proved controversial, with more than 10,000 residents signing a petition to delay it amid concerns that some people who lost their homes in the fire would be displaced from temporary housing in hotel rooms in West Maui. Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen has denied that’s the case: “The Red Cross has assured me that housing for displaced Lahaina residents, including those staying in hotels, is not in jeopardy.”

In Ka’anapali recently, a group of organizations came together to stage a protest on the beach, to raise awareness of the impacts that locals are still experiencing from the natural disaster.

While the travel industry has made an effort to rehire as many people as possible, unemployment is up 217 percent from this time last year. “Many have moved to other parts of the island to find jobs. Many have moved off the island completely to find jobs. Many remain without jobs,” says Maui resident and former Billboard Editor-in-Chief Tamara Conniff, who wrote a personal essay for THR in August about how she and her family escaped the inferno in Lahaina. “The biggest issue is housing uncertainty. No one knows when they will be kicked out of temporary housing. Many who found refuge in vacation rentals are getting kicked out so tourists can come back and are going to find themselves homeless.”

Dwayne Johnson at the U.K. Premiere of 'Black Adam' in 2022
Dwayne Johnson, co-founder of the People’s Fund of Maui.

A number of individuals in Hollywood have raised funds to help rebuild. Conniff is on the board of the Lahaina nonprofit Mana Mentors, which raised $100,000 in the first month after the fire to help families in need. And the People’s Fund of Maui — started by Dwayne Johnson and Oprah Winfrey (they each donated $5 million) — has signed up more than 8,100 residents of the towns of Lahaina and Kula in its support program, with enrollees already having received two months of payments of $1,200 a month. A third payment to residents will be disbursed in late November, bringing total support to nearly $30 million.

“I feel that anyone who wants to help should help,” Conniff says. “The People’s Fund of Maui has consistently given to people who need it. Also, The Edge and producer Bob Ezrin through Music Rising Lahaina stepped in so fast and have given so much immediate emergency funding to musicians on the island, with the aid of a local committee. Truly amazing.”

The true test will come this winter, the busiest tourism season. Kekuna is optimistic. “We’re seeing new visitors every day, from one-off visits to pre-booked groups, that are coming to enjoy the wonderful west side of Maui,” she says. “There is still a wealth of amazing experiences to do and see throughout the destination, so it remains a sought-after vacation spot to make new, cherished Maui memories.”

And Conniff encourages travelers to be more than passive observers as they return to Maui (which generates 80 percent of its wealth from tourism). “Be respectful. Help. Jump in. Give to a cause. Take time to talk to locals. Offer support. Be kind,” she says. “You chose a disaster zone to take a vacation. Every person you interact with that lives here is in trauma. Please understand that.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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