As I approach the fifth green on the Royal Ka'anapali Golf Course, I spy the first spout; the telltale sign of a humpback whale that, as winter progresses, will be joined by several thousand others. When I first visited Maui over twenty years ago, I assumed the myriad whitecaps I saw off the coast were caused by wind stirring up the Pacific. Pausing at a pullout to scan the sea with my binoculars, I was shocked to learn they were, in fact, whale spouts. As a wildlife photographer, such a magical setting, where whales reliably breach and loll about in epic numbers, remains high on the list of my favorite sights in the world.
“They’re arriving early this year,” says Karl Reul, my playing companion and the general manager of Ka'anapali Golf Courses. Like every West Maui resident, Reul has a personal story about August 8, 2023, when the horrific Lahaina fire burned through the historic West Maui town. Karl’s wife and daughter were in Old Lahaina that day to catch a matinee showing at Wharf Theaters, until the screening was canceled because high winds knocked down power lines. They returned to their home north of Kaanapali unaware, at the time, of the impending inferno.
The devastating 2,000-acre blaze resulted in 99 deaths, displaced hundreds of families, and destroyed more than 2,000 structures. It was the deadliest American wildfire in more than a century. At a September community meeting, Lahaina Mayor Richard Bissen said it could take up to two years of clearing the hazardous, ash-covered debris before residents can even begin to rebuild their homes.
To an outsider, the areas of West Maui that escaped the fire’s path remain paradisiacal—a fact that's easily seen while strolling Kaanapali Beach, snorkeling among sea turtles, or listening to a ukulele and slack-key guitar on the sandy terrace at Hulu Grill in Whalers Village. But while Kaanapali and Kapalua were not physically affected by the Lahaina Fire, tourism here has changed.
Like many travelers, my partner and I hesitated to return to Maui when tourism reopened in November. However, friends who live or work in West Maui encouraged us to come, urging that our tourist dollars are vital in helping residents get back on their feet. We were assured that our room at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort would not displace any Lahaina residents still staying hotels. Every worker we met, from the jewelry kiosks to the restaurants, thanked us profusely for visiting—and yet, many travelers remain unsure if it’s appropriate to resume vacationing on the island.
The ambivalence is shared by residents who, while historically dependent on tourism (West Maui accounts for 15% of Hawaiian tourism revenue), believe the rebuilding process provides a rare opportunity to address overtourism, environmental degradation, and economic imbalance. In October, over 17,000 people signed a petition calling for the Governor to delay the reopening in order to properly address the needs of working-class Lahaina residents. The Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates the state has lost $9 million tourism dollars per day in the wake of the fire, prompting the agency to invest $2.6 million in the Maui Marketing Recovery Plan to help rebuild travel demand.
“The tourism for West Maui is both the lifeblood of the economy for the last few decades and the open wound that still hurts"
“Most, if not all, people on Maui feel we need to better manage tourism for the betterment of the lives of our local population, and the fires brought this to the forefront, yet again, but in more personal and tragic ways,” says Kainoa Horcajo, who grew up on Maui and spent most family occasions in Lahaina. “The tourism for West Maui is both the lifeblood of the economy for the last few decades and the open wound that still hurts, knowing what Lahaina once was and what many of us see it as.”
Lahaina, the former center of the kingdom of Kamehameha, exemplifies how the archipelago’s fraught history with colonial forces has contributed to its current reliance on tourism. In 1887, King Kalakaua was forced to sign the Bayonet Constitution, a now infamous document that undercut Indigenous sovereignty and engendered an agricultural export-based economy; a colonial-run banana republic. Tourism arose in the mid-twentieth century after plantation owners moved sugarcane operations to countries with cheaper labor and fewer regulations. Lahaina, like much of West Maui, then saw the rise of resorts and housing communities that further denuded the landscape of native plants and other natural barriers. Today, local opinions on a solution range greatly, from banning tourism entirely to pleas for visitors to return ASAP. For now, the most practical solution might lie somewhere in between.
But instead of returning to the status quo, many believe the reopening of West Maui presents an opportunity to focus on regenerative tourism, a socio-ecological model that “seeks to ensure travel and tourism reinvest in people, places and nature and that it supports the long-term renewal and flourishing of our social-ecological systems,” as defined by tourism policy researcher Dianne Dredge in the Journal of Tourism Futures. A bottom-up paradigm shift along these lines “depends on our capacity to evolve our thinking from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and to develop compassion, empathy, and collaborative action," Dredge writes.
How does that play out in real life? A fifth-generation resident of Lahaina Town, Kalikolehua Storer, Cultural Specialist for Hyatt's Maui properties and a Lahaina Advisory Council member—whose family is currently living at the hotel where she works—explains there is a delicate balance between rebuilding tourism and the needs of residents.
“There are those living in the hotel without the opportunity to return to work,” she says. “We are finding that potential visitors who want to support our economic recovery are hesitant to come because of the commentary in the media.”
An opportunity for mindful travel
Leanne Pletcher, Director of Communication for Maui’s Visitors and Convention Bureau, says West Maui visits offer guests the opportunity to become more intentional travelers.
“Become a mindful traveler by supporting local businesses and volunteering,” she says, “There are several opportunities to volunteer. Kipuka Olowalu offers community workdays to replace invasive plants with indigenous ones. The Feed My Sheep Foodbank accepts dry goods and seeks volunteers for Thursday distributions.”
Clancy Casad's last visit was in May, prior to her November return. The Seattle resident, who has visited Maui biannually for years, says the burn scars she saw driving through Lahaina made a deep impression on her and her friends. She added several charity events to her holiday schedule.
“We went to a few fundraiser popups for restaurants that burned down,” she says. “The farmers, who usually supply restaurant food, hosted weekend brunch and dinner events upcountry in Kula."
In addition to carving out time in your vacation to give back to the community, small signs of respect are greatly appreciated, beginning with patience and understanding.
“Visitors love to embrace our aloha spirit,” says Storer. "to 'do what the locals do.' We ask that guests understand that people here don't want to be asked 'where the locals go' when providing snorkeling equipment, for example. They prefer inquiries that ask, 'Where can I go snorkeling that is most respectful?' It's a subtle but important difference." And nobody wants to discuss his or her tragic experiences with strangers, regardless of our good intentions.
Daniel Logtenberg, a Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii board member and Maui resident, says supporting locally owned businesses is the first step visitors should take. “Buying from small grocers, regional products, family restaurants, island farms, smaller shops, and local cultural experiences are all ways that visitors can contribute to a more sustainable future.”
Storer also recommends the Maui Strong Fund website as a platform. The fund distributes donations to many immediate and long-term recovery programs, from mental health support to youth centers. “I see progress every day,” she says. “We must celebrate the small wins. We have no playbook. But our hearts are pure, and we’re trying our best to leave no one behind.”
When I last spoke with Storer, she told me she was excited to welcome annual holiday visitors, many of whom she considers family, having known them for well over two decades. She had also called an emergency meeting for that afternoon with Lahaina community members, having learned about plans to build a temporary elementary school directly above the burn zone.
Her “not atypical” day demonstrates the delicate balance moving forward. The West Maui economy depends upon tourism, yet we visitors must also realize that many residents may not be emotionally prepared for our return. The reopening of West Maui provides an opportunity for each of us who visit to travel differently, to enjoy Maui’s community and sublime natural offerings with respect and understanding, an attitude that, like the aloha spirit, we can carry with us wherever we travel next.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler