Local businesses struggle to cope as visitor spending drops $15 million per day, economists say.

Pueo Wright is a second-generation farmer and fisherman in Hana, a remote East Maui community. To make ends meet, he runs food trucks that serve burgers, tacos and Thai food to tourists and locals alike.

Since the Aug. 8 fires that leveled most of Lahaina and killed at least 115 people, Wright’s businesses, like many others in Hana and around Maui, have all but shut down, reminding him of another dismal time not so long ago.

“This is Covid 2.0,” Wright said on a recent evening.  

A lot full of food trucks had become a bustling scene of visitors and locals alike in Hana, but they're mostly closed since the Aug. 8 fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Food trucks were a bustling scene of visitors and locals alike in Hana, but they’re mostly closed since the Aug. 8 fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The difference is that this time Wright isn’t receiving government relief checks or the extended unemployment benefits many American workers got. He just has to weather it, cutting back staff hours and keeping the “closed” sign up.

Wright has relatives who lost homes in Lahaina, a historic town 70 miles away in West Maui that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and developed into a popular tourism destination. He understands why tourists are staying away from the island, and in some ways, he’s grateful. People need time to heal.

But Wright also wrestles with the cold reality of having bills to pay: “How do you balance the grieving with the need to pay the mortgage?”

It’s a common sentiment on Maui these days where tourism underpins the island’s economy.

In the fire’s aftermath, Maui residents are still reeling with shock and sometimes rage over the catastrophic events that led to widespread loss of life and property in Lahaina, where nearly 400 people remain missing.

But with each passing day, there’s a growing sense that another tragedy is unfolding — economic devastation driven by the sudden collapse of tourism.  

Unused rental cars fill fields around Kahului Airport as the tourist economy severely contracts following the Aug. 8 wildfires that destroyed most of Lahaina and more than a dozen homes in Upcountry. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Economists paint a deeply disturbing picture that’s in line with the sea of unused rental cars sprawling outside Kahului Airport in Central Maui — an image local residents have long used to gauge how the island is doing.

Before the fires, some 41,000 people were flying to Maui each week on average. That plummeted to 12,000 for the week ending Aug. 19, according to data from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

With the dearth of tourists, the trickle-down effects are stark.

Jerry Gibson Portrait.
Jerry Gibson, head of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, says about 90% of hotel rooms in South Maui are empty.

About 90% of hotel rooms in South Maui — the island’s tourism hub — are vacant, said Jerry Gibson, president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance. That’s crucial when 70% of every dollar on Maui is generated from tourism, he said.

Visitor spending on Maui is down by an estimated $10 million to $15 million per day, said Carl Bonham, an economics professor and UHERO’s executive director.

The drop in spending is hitting government coffers hard.

Maui County may lose around $5 million a month in tax revenue, with the state losing somewhere in the $30 million range, Bonham said.

Thousands of Maui workers have lost jobs or had their hours slashed.

Some 130 people applied for unemployment the week before the fire. That jumped to 861 in the immediate aftermath, then soared to 4,444 the week ending Aug. 26. New numbers are due Thursday.

“Every job that serves tourists on Maui is being put at risk,” said Bonham.

Council on Revenues Member Carl Bonham.
Economist Carl Bonham says every job that serves tourists on Maui is being put at risk. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Some 80 restaurants islandwide have closed or temporarily shut their doors, according to state economist Eugene Tian.

One of them is Coconut’s Fish Café which has two locations in Kihei, a tourism mecca 20 miles down the road from Lahaina.

The restaurant at the Azeka Shopping Center is temporarily closed due to fire-related loss of business. A recording on the restaurant’s voicemail urges customers to visit the second location a mile and a half down the street at Kamaole Shopping Center.

“Please support us because our employees really need your business,” the recording says.

A woman working the cash register at the Kamaole location said business has nosedived, forcing management to shed some employees and cut the hours of others.

Robert Chiminiello, general manager of Black Rock Pizza in Kihei, says business is slow since the Aug. 8 fires and some staff have been calling saying they can’t come to work. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

“When it picks back up, we’ll bring them back — if they want to come back,” she said, declining to give her name but describing herself as a manager.

But will they come back? It’s a question many are asking on Maui.

Dive instructor Karim Mohamed is among those weighing their options. He teaches at Aston Kaanapali Shores and moonlights as an Uber driver. He left Maui after Aug. 8 and is visiting family on the East Coast while he figures out his next move.

“If things start moving again, I’ll go back,” he said.

He’s keeping his place on Maui for the time being but is considering starting over elsewhere if tourists don’t return to West Maui soon.

With experience teaching in places like Egypt, Bali, the Maldives and beyond, Mohamed has options. One spot he’s considering closer to home is the Big Island where housing is also scarce but tends to be cheaper than Maui, where the median home price is $1 million.

The outflow of workers adds to the uncertainty pervading Maui’s hospitality industry now.

Labor shortages were bad enough during and after the pandemic. But with thousands of Maui workers having lost their homes in the fires, Maui’s ultra-tight housing market may push many others off island.

Even employees still on the payroll may be taking time off or having difficulty focusing on their jobs. Workers need space to grieve, reassemble pieces of their lives, help struggling family or friends, or pitch in with aid distribution.

“It’s overwhelming. Everyone has been affected by this in one form or another,” said Robert Chiminiello, general manager of Black Rock Pizza in Kihei.

Seated at an outdoor table at his sparsely populated restaurant, Chiminiello said he’s hearing from staff who have too much going on in their personal lives to work.

“I have some people calling and saying, ‘I can’t come in. I have to volunteer,'” he said. “When I hear that, I say, ‘Do what you need to do.’”

A tiki bar in Kihei was mostly empty on a recent evening after tourists largely stopped visiting Maui in the wake of the Aug. 8 wildfires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

While he’s sympathetic, absences make it hard to run a restaurant, especially one that recently opened and has yet to get its liquor license. Black Rock Pizza has two locations on the Big Island and opened its newest spot in Kihei this summer.  

David Yamashiro, who owns Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice with his wife, understands the struggle.

Although his business is well established and expanding with franchises on the mainland, Yamashiro lost two of his highest-grossing locations as well as a warehouse in Lahaina. None of his employees perished but many lost everything. He’s fundraising through his company’s website to help them replace their losses.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen pauses during a press conference Aug. 29, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen has made it clear Maui is open for business to tourists — just not West Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Early messaging from some government officials and social media influencers after the fires, telling tourists not to come to Maui, severely hurt Yamashiro’s shave ice stores elsewhere on Maui, he said. With the downturn in his business, Yamashiro said he’s not able to give as much as back to his employees as he would like and his company’s survival is threatened.

“Now we’re taking a 50% if not 65% hit — some days it’s been 70% hit — on what is normal for this time of year for us and that is catastrophic for any business,” Yamashiro said.

So what will it take to lure visitors back to Maui?

Industry insiders say clear, consistent messaging is essential. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, Gov. Josh Green, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and other elected officials have been endeavoring to put that message out more.

“What we want to do is return jobs to our people,” Bissen said at a press conference Tuesday. “We stress that west Maui is currently not the place for people to go. But the rest of Maui is open.”

Currently, 2,370 Maui hotel rooms are under contract with FEMA, the Red Cross and other relief organizations to house fire survivors, hotel workers who lost their homes, rescue workers, National Guard troops, FBI, and others assisting with search and recovery, he said. Most of them are in the Kaanapali area and they’re housing some 5,456 people as of Monday.

Hotels are mostly empty after the Aug. 8 fires, including at the Grand Wailea resort in South Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

But plenty of hotel rooms in South Maui, some 2,600, are available for tourists. That doesn’t include scores of vacation rentals, condos, timeshares and other short-term units.

Gibson said timeshare owners will likely be the first group of non-Hawaii residents to return because they’ll want to check on their property.

Kalani Kaʻanaʻana, chief brand officer for Hawaiian Tourism Authority, said his organization is “holding space” and having compassion for the people of Lahaina who have lost everything, including loved ones. At the same time, HTA is listening to business owners and others whose economic lives have been shattered by the disaster and its ripple effects.

Thousands of relief workers are staying in Kaanapali, about four miles north of Lahaina. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

HTA is trying to strike a balance, he said. The agency is encouraging visitors to return to parts of Maui that are open, meaning everywhere except West Maui at least until mid-October when the governor’s emergency proclamation ends.

On Wednesday, HTA announced the return of Norwegian Cruise Line making weekly overnight calls to Kahului starting Sunday.

The cruise line paused its calls to Maui after the wildfires in Lahaina and Upcountry to avoid stressing local resources, HTA said in a release.

If people do choose to come, which Kaʻanaʻana hopes they will, visitors should be mindful, respectful and purposeful with their visit, acknowledging the trauma thousands of people on Maui are currently experiencing.

A mindful visitor might choose to donate time to the many organizations on island that need volunteers or help plant native trees, something to improve land conditions to make Maui less vulnerable to future wildfire.

Longtime Hana resident Tad Bartimus, a retired journalist, described the current situation in her hometown as “sobering.” She lives about as far away from Lahaina as possible on the island, but the economic effects quickly reached the town.

The 65-mile road to Hana is often a bumper-to-bumper, hours-long ride. It's been almost void of traffic since the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The 65-mile road to Hana is often a bumper-to-bumper, hours-long ride. It’s been almost void of traffic since the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The winding 64-mile coastal road that connects Hana to Kahului is often a must-do activity among tourists. Since the fires, the normal bumper-to-bumper traffic has been non-existent.

“You could shoot a canon down the highway and not hit anything except maybe a cow,” Bartimus said last week.

There are no lines to speak of at Hasegawa General Store, one of the only places in Hana to buy groceries, or at the Ranch Store, another option.

“It’s like we’re on the moon,” Bartimus said. “Suddenly everyone has disappeared. It’s very unsettling.”

Despite the jarring emptiness of Hana, she feels confident in Maui’s resiliency to handle whatever comes its way.

“We’re really at the end of the food chain here,” Bartimus said. “But we have our farmers. We’re not going to starve out here.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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