Campaign seeks to bring visitors back to Maui

Displaced Lahaina wildfire survivor Lily Nguyen, who says she and her daughter fled into the ocean water for five hours to escape the fire, prepares pho at a Fishing for Housing protest Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, Kaanapali Beach in Lahaina, Hawaii. "Almost four months now and we live day by day, we don't know what to do," Nguyen said. A group of survivors is camping on the resort beach to protest and raise awareness for better long-term housing options for those displaced. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has launched a new public service campaign, “Makaukau Maui,” which seeks to tell visitors that while historic Lahaina remains closed after the deadly Aug. 8 wildfires, accommodations on West Maui are open and residents are ready to welcome them back.

That message was delivered by Gov. Josh Green and Maui Mayor Richard Bissen prior to the Nov. 1 reopening of West Maui. However, the welcome was diluted by anti­-tourism social media messaging. It also is a challenge for visitors to ignore Lahaina Strong’s Fishing for Housing action, which has used customary and cultural fishing rights to turn parts of Kaanapali Beach into a campsite for displaced fire survivors.


Keith Vieira, principal of KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said Kaanapali guests are “having a good time, but every single one of them is aware of ‘Fishing for Lahaina.’ They don’t understand the desired outcome, and it gets tiring. You are on vacation. You are on your honeymoon. You are here to celebrate your 25th anniversary. You are here to have a good time, and there are protesters living on the beach.”

HTA’s campaign seeks to respectfully offer another narrative. It features a dozen locals in a 60-second video and two 30-second videos with the key message, “Ready to work. Ready to serve.”

In the 60-second video, the narrator says : “For Maui it’s a new beginning. With honor and deep respect, we are moving forward. We are planting the seeds for Maui’s future.

“We’re ready to get people back to work. Ready to get our economy going again. It’s our chance to start over. To envision and build an even better Maui — more resilient, more sustainable. We all have to do our part, and we’ll make this happen working together.”

Then there are shots of 12 different locals delivering these messages: “We’re ready. Ready. We are ready to work. Ready to serve. We are ready to guide you. Ready. Ready. We’re ready. All ready. Ready. Ready. We are ready.”

The website also offers links to support West Maui community members and businesses, and for visitors to learn how to malama, or care for, Maui at a time when HTA says that they must be “especially mindful and respectful in our island home.”

The rollout of HTA’s newest campaign comes as Maui, the state’s most tourism-­dependent island, is still trying to build back visitor arrival numbers in the wake of the wildfires, which took the lives of at least 101 people and destroyed homes, cultural and historical sites, and commercial businesses, including many visitor-focused restaurants and shops.

Initial messaging, including sentiments from actor Jason Mamoa of “Aquaman” fame, encouraging visitors to stay away from all of Maui, were especially confusing and wrecked earlier havoc on Maui’s economy.

Paul Brewbaker, principal of TZ Economics, said recently at the 2024 Annual Outlook &Economic Forecast Forum for the Hawaii Chapters of the Pacific Asia Travel Association and the Travel and Tourism Research Association: “Suggesting that people should not travel to Wailea, Maui, because a wildfire happened in Lahaina is like saying that people should not travel to Waikiki, Oahu, because of a wildfire in Nanakuli.

“Performative emotional intelligence is not helpful for victims and the community, Aquaman.”

More refined messaging indicating that all of Maui save for historic Lahaina town has reopened to visitors has improved Maui’s tourism economy, albeit not to normal levels.

The state Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism reported that in December 196,402 visitors came to Maui. The results were down 24.8% from 2022 but were the highest number of visitors to Maui in the past five months.

Green said in a statement when the visitor arrivals data was released that it “shows reason for optimism that travel to Hawaii is continuing to recover since the pandemic and since the Maui wildfires. While the decision to reopen West Maui to visitors was difficult, the numbers show that visitor industry revenue is helping the people of Maui.”

“Makaukau Maui” also follows the release of new data from Anthology Research, which was commissioned by the DBEDT and shows that travelers who visited Maui from its top U.S. West and U.S. East source markets were less satisfied than previous visitors.

The campaign builds on Green’s lead, while addressing some of the worrisome post-fire trends in tourism to Maui that were revealed by the survey. More than 8 in 10 visitors from Maui’s core U.S. West and U.S. East source markets still rated their trip to Maui as “excellent”; nearly 1 in 10 visitors who traveled after the fires took place admitted their trip did not meet their expectations, according to the survey.

Post-fire visitors from the U.S. West are statistically less likely to recommend Maui as a travel destination compared with pre-fire visitors from this market. However, there wasn’t a statistical difference post-fire when it came to visitors from the U.S. East making recommendations.

In general, U.S. West travelers were less satisfied with Maui after the fires than U.S. East visitors. They had statistically lower post-fire satisfaction scores when it came to lodging/accommodations, dining/food beverage and entertainment and attractions.

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