I Visited Maui After the Devastating Wildfires — Here's How You Can Do It Responsibly

Locals are reimagining the Hawaiian island's travel industry.

<p>Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua </p> A coastal walk with Ambassadors of the Environment at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

A coastal walk with Ambassadors of the Environment at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

On a cool, misty morning last December at Kīpuka Olowalu, an agricultural reserve on Maui’s west side, a trio of volunteers — a retired Canadian couple and me — offered the Hawaiian chant E Hō Mai to the ancestors, requesting their wisdom for the tasks at hand: pulling weeds and planting sweet potato in the name of conserving sacred land. I’ve visited Maui countless times — the island is just a quick hop from O'ahu, where I’m from — to hike in Haleakalā National Park or tour the waterfalls along the Hāna Highway. But volunteering was a whole new experience, and one I had not considered until then.

Since the hurricane-fueled wildfire that leveled the historic West Maui town of Lahaina last Aug. 8, many would-be visitors, myself included, have grappled with the question of whether — or when — they should return. On my trip, I met locals keen to reboot — even reimagine — the island’s travel industry. Tourism is big business in Maui, where nearly 3 million annual visitors drive 40 percent of the economy. But merely resurrecting the full-throttle frolic of the recent past seems counterproductive and insensitive in the wake of the catastrophe’s 2,170 scorched acres, more than 2,200 burned structures, and 101 fatalities.

“If you want to wear your crazy aloha shirts and plastic leis, just recognize that many of us have gone through a lot recently and seeing something like that could really bum us out,” says Riley Coon, the third-generation owner of Maui’s oldest sailboat company, Trilogy. Despite losing a vessel in the fire, Coon captained a boat to aid the Coast Guard with water rescues that night. He says that watching Lahaina burn into the wee hours from his mooring just off shore was “eerie and quiet.”

<p>Trevor Clark/Courtesy of Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui</p> Kamahiwa Kawa’a, the director of Hawaiian Culture at Fairmont Kea Lani, shows guests how to pick ginger flowers for a lei

Trevor Clark/Courtesy of Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui

Kamahiwa Kawa’a, the director of Hawaiian Culture at Fairmont Kea Lani, shows guests how to pick ginger flowers for a lei

In the wake of the fire, visitor arrivals by air to Maui dropped as much as 51.4 percent. But considering the island’s nearly full recovery from the pandemic slump, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority anticipates a strong comeback from the landmark blaze, preemptively rolling out a $2.6-million Mālama Maui campaign to encourage visitors to make a more mindful return.

“Visitors are part of an incremental, but invaluable effort to shift the landscape of Maui tourism,” says Karin Osuga, executive director of Kīpuka Olowalu. “By taking part in cultural experiences, we hope that visitors will gain a deeper appreciation for our island.” The significant goodwill that voluntourism generates belies the short hours typically required for any given session. At Kīpuka Olowalu, our quiet morning of landscaping under the kukui nut trees and among the fallen noni fruit spanned just three hours, including lessons on native Hawaiian plants and Indigenous farming practices. Other volunteering opportunities on the island that more directly aid fire recovery include delivering meals for Hungry Heroes Hawai’i, an organization born of the pandemic, and sorting donations for the Maui Humane Society, which has taken in more than 800 animals since the Lahaina blaze.

Still, volunteering on vacation is not for everyone — no judgment here. More leisurely, but no less compelling, culture fixes on the island include exploring the vibrant arts district of Wailuku town, packed with installations, murals, and even pop-up performances. The artists are part of a program called Small Town * Big Art, in which they’re paired with local kūpuna (knowledge keepers) to create works based on sacred Hawaiian proverbs. If you’re traveling to Maui during September or October, check out the annual Festivals of Aloha, a series of cultural showcases held in towns across the island, from a high-energy hula event in Wailea to a pitch-perfect falsetto contest at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua to a shoreline fishing tournament in Hāna. Such a wide geographic span serves as a reminder that island culture is not limited to the tourist hub of West Maui. Says Festivals of Aloha director Daryl Fujiwara, “While West Maui is healing, why not get to know other parts of the island?”

<p>Melia Lucida/Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua </p> Dancers perform “Tales of the Kapa Moe Lū‘au” at the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua.

Melia Lucida/Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

Dancers perform “Tales of the Kapa Moe Lū‘au” at the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua.

For example, upcountry towns like Pā'ia and Makawao, also singed by the August fires, are charming bohemias of agriculture and gastronomy, where award-winning goat cheese is produced, wine-producing vineyards thrive in Haleakalā’s rich volcanic soil, and a farm-forward, wood-fired sourdough pizza place is considered a destination among tourists and neighbors alike. In upscale Wailea, the Fairmont Kea Lani’s new cultural center, Hale Kukuna, hosts a rich calendar of lei-making, hula, bamboo-carving, ukulele, and Hawaiian language for all visitors and residents of Maui, not just hotel guests.

“Making a cultural connection is key to understanding why Maui — Lahaina especially — is so important to us,” says Kamahiwa Kawa’a, the center’s cultural manager, of Lahaina’s history as the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1802 to 1845, when the town was a lush coastal flat teeming with taro wetlands and forests of coconut and breadfruit trees. While the burn zone is off-limits for the foreseeable future, scorched earth spans both sides — mauka to makai, or mountain to ocean — of West Maui’s Lahaina Bypass Road and Route 30, a cataclysmic contrast to that 19th-century utopia. (Dust fencing prevents visibility of the burn zone from these roads, and stopping to take photos is prohibited.) Along the way, spray-painted signs read “Lahaina Strong,” “Let Lahaina heal,” and “Lahaina is not for sale.”

<p>Randy Jay Braun/Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua; Tanveer Badal/Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua </p> A carving demonstration at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua; guests participate in a hula demonstration at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

Randy Jay Braun/Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua; Tanveer Badal/Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

A carving demonstration at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua; guests participate in a hula demonstration at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

Understandably, many locals are apprehensive of such a whiplash return to business as usual. Last Oct. 8, just two months after the fire, Hawai’i governor Josh Green began a phased reopening of West Maui — historically responsible for 15 percent of the state’s tourism economy — even before the tragedy’s toll had been totally accounted for. (Damages are still mounting as the clean-up — estimated to take a decade or longer — continues.) A few weeks later, Maui mayor Richard Bissen, motivated by an estimated $9 million in daily economic losses, short-circuited the governor’s plan, reopening all of the West Maui coastline — except the burn zone — last Nov. 1.

This has created an awkward clash in the West Maui resort enclave of Kā’anapali. Between the growing influx of tourists and the more than 5,000 fire evacuees still sheltering in hotels there through a FEMA-funded program, friction is inevitable. As such, community leaders are asking visitors to curb their curiosity around the events and aftermath of the fire when speaking to locals not just in West Maui, but all over the island.

“You don’t have to be nosy to be supportive,” says Sissy Lake-Farm, the executive director of the Maui Historical Society. “Please don’t dwell on the fire or how people were affected since they may have lost their home, lost their business, even lost friends or family.” Trilogy's Coon, who is also on the board of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, adds, “Those stories are now becoming special and reserved for people we know and care about. But we’ll still take sentiments like, ‘Hey, I'm really sorry for what you guys have gone through.’ Those really mean a lot.”

<p>Kevin J. Miyazaki/Courtesy of Tiffany's (2)</p> The restaurants exterior and “Just like oxtail soup” at Tiffany’s Maui.

Kevin J. Miyazaki/Courtesy of Tiffany's (2)

The restaurants exterior and “Just like oxtail soup” at Tiffany’s Maui.

Lake-Farm notes that another easy way to “plug in” to Maui culture is by supporting local businesses like mom-and-pop restaurants, which are particularly valuable to the island’s economy since they also sustain a network of local farms, ranches, and fisheries. For example, Tiffany’s Maui in Wailuku sources poultry from the farm Simple Roots for the kiawe-smoked huli huli chicken, and the philanthropic food truck Maui Fresh Streatery makes homemade kimchi from Kula Country Farms cabbage for Korean pork-belly bowls. You can also find a different spin on hyperlocal fare at Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate, where cacao cultivated on the home farm, along with coffee grown locally, go into the Maui Ku’ia Estate dark chocolate and Maui Mokka cappuccino bars.

On a Trilogy snorkel tour to the 939-acre Olowalu reef, the splendor of Maui seemed, if only for that December morning, to be back in full effect: The humpback whales were breeching, and the reef was swarming with colorful fish like Hawaiian bigeye and sunset basslet, plus some rarer finds like blacktip reef sharks, green sea turtles, and one massive monk seal. According to the Trilogy crew, more than 25 percent of Hawai’i’s ocean species are endemic due to the archipelago’s isolation, making every snorkel trip that much more special.

An Australian couple, having just emerged from the briny deep, high-fived each other as they climbed back onto the boat. “Best day ever!” they cheered. Fellow passengers echoed their enthusiastic refrain, and even the crew joined in. I recalled the chanting at Kīpuka Olowalu a few days before, which was much quieter and on firmly land, but no less heartfelt. After a skillful docking back at Ma’alaea Harbor, the second-windiest marina in the world, our boat captain addressed the passengers with a slight crack in his voice. “Thanks for being here, for being cool, and for hanging out with us,” he said. “If you want to know how to support Maui right now, you’re doing it.”

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