HONOLULU (KHON2) — More than 8,000 people on Maui are unemployed, in what’s become an economic crisis in the wake of the fire disaster. More are losing jobs daily, as residents and officials implore visitors to come back, but not to West Maui.
The suffering in Lahaina is beyond comprehension, and now, more anxiety as job cuts mount due to a drop visitor arrivals.
“Hotels are starting to notify their teams that they’re reducing hours or doing layoffs,” said Tapani Vuori, general manager of the Maui Ocean Center. “I’m hearing several boats already shut down their operations. So all of a sudden, it’s starting to touch every single person here on Maui.”
Initial weekly unemployment claims for Maui averaged just over 100 before the fire, but more than 8,100 people filed for unemployment between Aug. 8-20.
“We need to recover. We need to keep Maui employed,” Vuori said. “An employed Maui is a resilient Maui. Unfortunately, the messaging in the beginning started with, ‘Don’t come to Maui, Maui is closed.’ This was a grave, grave mistake in my opinion.”
Visitors listened and stayed away. In early August about 8,000 arrived daily, down to under 2,000 these days, putting at risk Maui’s significant contribution to the state’s economy. Maui drives nearly one-third of visitor counts of 3 million a year, and nearly one-third of visitor spending of about $6 billion a year. Almost $800 million of that annually was brought in by Lahaina businesses employing 5,300 people before the fire.
“And then it flows down to everybody on the island,” said musician Arlie Asiu. “So without the business over here, it’s spooky for a lot of locals.”
“I would urge everyone, all of us, our community, get together and really communicate that Maui is open for tourism,” Vuori said. “However, that tourism needs to be respectful, compassionate, and Lahaina is out of bounds.”
Take the perspective of this visitor-industry worker from Lahaina who lost everything:
“At first, I was one of them that said this whole island is closed,” said Hope Kaneakua of Lahaina. “But now we see how it’s affecting us. As far as visitors? West Maui is closed. As far as the ocean center, you know, like us locals, food and beverage, our servers, this is how we make a living. And we’re all trying to figure it out. And just be there for one another.’
Because of her job, her keiki were at the Maui Ocean Center the day of the fire. Their boss lets them bring kids to work in cases of sudden school closures like what happened that morning with the wind.
“My heart goes to all the families whose children were left at home know when they were at work, because that could have been my kids, you know,” Kaneakua said. “But thankfully, they were here with me and we’re alive and well, but then again, what about all those people missing and all those children? Just, my heart goes to other families, to everyone that lost anyone anything. This is unbelievable. I keep telling myself this is just a dream.”
Of the handful of folks venturing to Maui these days…
“The tourists that I run into personally talk to are very concerned and want to help out in any way possible,” Asiu said. “I’m just excited for anybody else who wants to help the people of Lahaina that lost their homes.”
Visitors KHON spoke with said they checked first, and are spending lots.
“We talked to the lady where we rented and she had told us that everything is open except for the west side. You don’t want to go over there, and be respectful,” said Bob Boehringer from Fort Worth, Texas.
KHON2 asked Boehringer: Now that you are here during a disaster, how does that influence your spending?
“Bakes me be a little more generous, you know,” he said. “They’re going through a tough time down here.”
It’s a pattern the head of Maui’s largest attraction sees over and over, like another visitor had done just the day before: “He made a substantial purchase in retail,” Vuori said. “On top of that he decided to donate $1,000 for the Maui recovery efforts, and then he went to our Reef Cafe and purchased I believe a hot dog or something small and he wrote another $1,000 donation.”
“Please do come here,” Vouri implores of visitors. “We want your money here. Let’s not be bashful about it because the money needs to be in circulation. That will keep all of us employed.”