‘You’re kind of raised to hate tourists’: Maui fires fan tensions on Hawaiian island

‘You’re kind of raised to hate tourists’: Maui fires fan tensions on Hawaiian island

By: Holly Honderich & Max Matza

Photo Contribution: David Franklin/ shutterstock.com

After wildfires devastated parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US, officials warned visitors to stay away. But thousands remained and others continued to fly in, angering residents in the wake of the tragedy.

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At Maui’s Wailea Beach on Monday the skies were bright and clear. Luxury hotels lined the beachfront, their guests spread on the sand. Some waded in the ocean, while others sat under umbrellas with white monogrammed towels on their chairs.

Inside one of the hotels, beyond a pool, a two-tiered fountain and a glass-walled habitat for the resident parrot, was a wooden-framed screen advertising a relief fund for the resort’s employees – the first sign of the destruction in Lahaina, just 30 miles (48km) up the coast.

In the wake of the wildfires, the deadliest in modern US history, frustration at tourists who have chosen to carry on with their holidays has grown. Many in Maui say the devastation has highlighted what is known as the “two Hawaiis” – one built for the comfort of visitors and another, harsher Hawaii left to Hawaiians.

“It’s all butterflies and rainbows when it comes to the tourism industry,” said a 21-year-old Maui native and an employee at the hotel who asked to remain anonymous. “But what’s really under it is kind of scary.”

Last Wednesday, a day after the wildfires, the county asked visitors to leave Lahaina and the island as a whole as soon as possible.

Officials soon urged people to avoid the island entirely, except for essential travel. “In the days and weeks ahead, our collective resources and attention must be focused on the recovery of residents and communities that were forced to evacuate,” the Hawaii Tourism Authority said.

Many travelers heeded the advice. In the immediate aftermath of the fires, some 46,000 people left the island. The grass field separating the airport from the surrounding highway is now lined with rows upon rows of suddenly surplus rental cars.

But thousands did not. Some ignored requests to leave Maui immediately, while others flew in after the fire – decisions that have angered some.

“If this was happening to your hometown, would you want us to come?” said resident Chuck Enomoto. “We need to take care of our own first.”

Another Maui local told the BBC that tourists were swimming in the “same waters that our people died in three days ago” – an apparent reference to a snorkeling excursion on Friday just 11 miles from Lahaina.

The snorkeling company later apologized for running the tour, saying it had first “offered our vessel throughout the week to deliver supplies and rescue people but its design wasn’t appropriate for the task”.

But the opposition to tourists is not without complications given the island is economically reliant on those travelers. The Maui Economic Development Board has estimated that the island’s “visitor industry” accounts for roughly four out of every five dollars generated here, calling those visitors the “economic engine” of the county.

“You’re kind of raised to hate tourists,” said the young hotel worker. “But that’s really the only way to work on the islands. If it’s not hospitality then it’s construction.

Several business owners expressed concern that the growing anti-tourist sentiment could hurt Maui further.

“What I’m afraid of is that if people keep seeing ‘Maui’s closed’, and ‘don’t come to Maui’, what little business is left is going to be gone,” said Daniel Kalahiki, who owns a food truck in Wailuku. Sales have already dropped by 50% since the fire, he said. “And then the island is going to lose everything.”

Still, in the days after the fire, the disparity between Maui residents – reeling from catastrophic loss – and the insulated tourist hotspots has been laid bare.

In one Hawaii, locals face an acute housing crisis. Many live in modest one-story homes in neighborhoods like Kahului and Kīhei, some in multi-family dwellings, with each family separated by a curtain or a thin plywood wall.

And working a number of jobs is common, locals told the BBC, to keep up with rising costs. Jen Alcantara shrugged off surprise that she worked for a Canadian airline in addition to a senior administrative position at Maui’s hospital. “That’s Hawaii,” she said.

In this Hawaii, the effects of the fires are everywhere. At shops and grocery stores, evacuees look for essentials, trying to replace their lost possessions with whatever money they have. At restaurants, workers can be seen in kitchens and behind bars holding back tears and making phone calls to co-ordinate relief efforts.

Here, collections were being taken for the survivors nearly everywhere you look. An upscale coffee shop in Kahului was offering to refrigerate donated breast milk. Food truck owners were volunteering their services to the front line and farmers were carrying bunches of bananas to shelters.

Things are different in the other Hawaii.

As you reach the end of the 30-minute drive from the island’s urban centre to Wailea, home to Maui’s high-end holiday rentals and resorts, the earth suddenly changes, dry brown grasses become a rich, watered green.

“It’s a blunt line,” one local said, another hotel employee who did not want to be named.

Inside Wailea, gated communities border golf courses, that are connected to luxury hotels. Inside those hotels, obliging staff provide surf lessons and pool-side meals, including a $29 burger.

Staff told the BBC that many of the guests were sympathetic to the crisis on the west of the island. Others had complained about scheduled activities in Lahaina – horse-riding, ziplining – being cancelled, said Brittany Pounder, 34, an employee at the Four Seasons.

The day after the fires, one guest visiting from California, asked if he could still get to his dinner reservation at the Lahaina Grill – a restaurant in one of the hardest-hit areas of the town. “It’s not OK,” Ms Pounder said.

There is mounting concern that the eventual rebuild of Lahaina will further cater to this second Hawaii.

Already, wealthy visitors have contributed to exorbitant house prices, buying land and property in a place where homeownership is out of reach for many permanent residents. Famous billionaires Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos both have homes in Maui. Oprah Winfrey is the island’s largest landowner.

Rumors have spread of estate agents approaching Hawaiian property owners in Lahaina, asking about possible deals.

Several locals told the BBC they worried Lahaina would be refashioned into another Waikiki, the ritzy waterfront of Honolulu, dominated by oceanfront high-rises and branded luxury shopping.

“We don’t need another Waikiki,” said Chuck Enomoto. “But it’s inevitable.”