Rebuilding Maui: Helping After the Fire

Maui Liz Fleming rotated
Mālama ka ‘aina Maui: We Will Take Care and Protect You

By Liz Fleming

Beach at Pāʻia  – Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
Beach at Pāʻia – Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

The mental and physical health boosts a vacation provides are indisputable. Downtime, sunshine, great meals we don’t have to make, maybe a spa treatment or two…everything contributes to making us feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

But can our holiday time actually do even more good for others? Can our travel dollars work magic in areas recovering from disasters, helping them get back on their feet and rebuild their lives? Absolutely.

Disaster Tourism in Maui?

In October, I spent a week on the Hawaiian island of Maui, staying not far from the once popular tourist town of Lahaina, where a massive blaze on August 7th fire destroyed nearly every structure in the area and claimed hundreds of lives. What is thought to have begun as an electrical fire was fanned by the winds from an off-shore hurricane, creating a monumental fire-breathing monster that swallowed the beautiful historic area.

We all heard the early news reports that discouraged travelers, emphasizing that all available accommodation on the west side of the island was needed to house survivors and first responders. Disaster tourism – that most heinous of travel choices that can dra voyeurs to the sites of tragedies – was firmly rejected and responsible travelers understood.

Haleakalā Summit in Clouds – Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) / Taku Miyazawa
Haleakalā Summit in Clouds – Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) / Taku Miyazawa

But by late September, the story had changed. By then, only two of the large resorts in the area were still needed to house the survivors, many of whom had found at least temporary accommodations with family and friends. The island was eager – perhaps even desperate – to have tourists return.

Bringing the Guests Back to Maui

The importance of bringing guests back to Hawaii, and most particularly to Maui is still paramount. Says one tour company owner, “Many people lost their homes to the fire. We don’t want others to lose theirs to foreclosure.” From the servers in restaurants, to the cleaning staff in hotels, the tour guides, and the artisans who sell their creations in beachside shops, the people who live in tourist areas depend on travelers. Without visitors, there is no income to feed families and pay rent, let alone begin the long, hard work of rebuilding. It’s that simple.

Is This the Year to Visit Maui?

So is this the year you’ll visit Maui? There could be no better time. And it’s important to know that if you’re considering a holiday in this recovering area, the experience won’t be somehow second-rate. While the devastation in Lahaina was horrific, it touched only one small area of an otherwise gorgeous tropical paradise. West Maui resorts less than ten miles away from the burn site were untouched, and are as beautiful as they’ve always been.

maui rotatedThe island of Maui is known for a year-round climate as warm and welcoming as its people. Edged by beautiful sandy beaches that surround a lush central rain forest, Maui offers great fishing, surfing, snorkeling, SCUBA, paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, hiking – every tropical pastime you could ask for.

Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway for two or are taking the kids for a blow-out family holiday, there’ll be a resort that’s just your style. The seafood is fabulous and the service is never less than gracious – hospitality is a Hawaiian tradition that’s deeply ingrained in its people.

From enjoying a feast of roasted pig, poi, pineapple and more at a torchlight laua, to touring the fascinating exhibits at the Ocean Center, to flying high above the rainforest on a helicopter tour, to making the must-do drive up to the crater of the Haleakala Crater 10,000 feet above sea level to watch the sunset above the clouds, Maui will create memories for a lifetime.

And the dollars you spend will create a better tomorrow for people struggling with incredible challenges and losses.

Make a difference without Making Waves

We chose to spend a day at the emergency distribution center near Lahaina, packing food, clothing and other supplies for the hundreds of people who came looking for help each day. We soon realized that when you’ve lost your home, there’s almost nothing that you don’t need.

The other volunteers we met at the center came from across the U.S. and indeed, around the world. Some were part of government-run aid agencies while others were simply individuals who touched by the stunning scope of the loss experienced by the people of Lahaina. AnnaAll had come to Maui to roll up their sleeves and pitch in and we were happy to join them. Far from feeling like the sacrifice of a vacation day, it felt like a privilege to contribute.

Even if a day at a distribution center isn’t in your plans, there are things you can do – and not do – when you come. Perhaps the most important way to be of help when you visit Maui is to remember that grief is private. As a tourist, you’re more than welcome to be in West Maui – your very presence is providing the lifeblood the area needs to heal and rebuild and you will definitely feel that sense of welcome and appreciation.

Wailea palms – Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
Wailea palms – Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

In turn, you can show your appreciation for the hospitality of Maui’s people by being kind and keeping your curiosity to yourself. Yes, you care and are ready to offer condolences but it’s vital that you resist the urge to ask the people you meet how the fire affected them.

Remember, the smiling bartender who serves your Mai Tai may have lost a family member and could be struggling to maintain his composure while he does his job. Being asked to relive and describe the horrors won’t help, but an understanding smile and a tip from you will.

Hawaiians are a spiritual people, with a culture built on respect for the land, the ocean, their families and their ancestors. You can approach your visit to Maui with the same respect. In October, months after the fire, police cars were still stationed along the road that passes by the ruins of Lahaina, ensuring that no one stopped to take photos. Families were still gathering on the beach in front of the ruins of the town to scatter the ashes of their loved ones so tourists were asked to choose other beaches, of which there are many. It was a simple way to be kind and had no impact on anyone’s holiday enjoyment.

If you have any hesitation about visiting, or are worried about just how to approach a holiday in an area recovering from tragedy, don’t let your fears stop you. Instead, let this Hawaiian word – Malama – be your inspiration. Malama means ‘healing’.

What to see, where to go, what to do and where to stay in Maui

Rent a car and make a sunrise or sunset visit to the Haleakala Crater, 10,000 feet above sea level. Bring a jacket because you’ll find the temperature drops steadily as you drive up the winding road to the top. There, you’ll find one of the few places in the world where you can see the sun rise or set on top of the clouds.

Do a driving trip across Maui to visit Wai’anapanapa Park, Ke’anae village, and Waikani Falls

Take a helicopter tour of the rainforest, gazing down on beautiful waterfalls and lush green trees. If you’re lucky, the pilot will land and give you a nature-lover’s tour of the beautiful trees and flowers that bloom far from everything else on the island.

Snorkel or SCUBA in the majestic Molokini crater, a dormant volcano under the waves that’s home to endless schools of technicolor fish.

Maui is home to majestic humpbacks and a whale watching cruise can take you to see them in the wild.

Always wanted to learn to ride a curl? Take a surfing lesson.

Meet the underwater world at the Maui Ocean Center/The Aquarium of Hawaii, where every sea creature you’ve ever wanted to meet is waiting for you.

Te Au Moana Luau

Enjoy the Te Au Moana (which means ocean tides) Luau (a huge show and feast) at The Wailea Beach Marriott Resort. Think flaming torches, roasting pigs, ukelele players, talented, and costumed dancers, all blended into a fabulous night on the beach.

Plan to stay at The Wailea Beach Marriott Resort long after the luau has ended. Whether you choose to loll on the soft white sand beach or sip something cool while you soak in one of the two horizon pools, you can’t help but feel pampered and spoiled. If you really think you deserve something special – and why wouldn’t you? – check in for a day of private poolside pleasure at Olakino, a wellness-focused pool oasis.

Not only will you have delicious food and drinks delivered right to your lounge chair, but you’ll also be treated to on-the-spot shoulder massages from a skilled masseuse, wellness presentations and bespoke spa treatments. The only thing missing will be opc (other people’s children) interrupting your solitary adult bliss.

Liz Fleming

Liz Flemingis a Canadian freelance travel writer and radio show host.

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