Maui Travel Dilemma: Is Tourism Helpful Or Harmful?

I wanted to take a moment to talk about the heartbreaking situation in Maui, and the double-edged sword that is tourism.

The destruction in Maui is devastating

As I think just about everyone knows by now, we’re seeing such tragic devastation in Maui from wildfires. The situation is simply beyond words. There’s really nothing I can say, other than that Hawaii remains in my thoughts, and my heart bleeds for those who are part of the community impacted by this. This really puts into perspective how grateful we should be to just wake up every morning with a roof over our head.

Not only have well over 100 people died from the fires in West Maui, but the financial and cultural toll on the community is immeasurable. Hawaii is such a special and unique place, and rebuilding what has been lost will be a massive task.

There are lots of great charities that are helping the victims of the Maui wildfires, and I can only encourage anyone who is in a position to help to do so (I certainly plan on doing so).

Maui Travel Dilemma: Is Tourism Helpful Or Harmful?
Much of Maui remains open and welcomes visitors

When should people travel to Maui again?

I’m seeing a lot of people taking strong stances one way or another about traveling to Maui. Some people say you should absolutely visit Maui ASAP, while others label it as reckless. In this post I wanted to address this topic in a (hopefully) balanced way.

To start, let me share the official guidance that the Hawaii Tourism Authority has published. As of August 17, 2023, the official advice is that West Maui remains off limits, though travelers are encouraged to visit other parts of Maui.

One thing is for sure — whether people “should” or “shouldn’t” visit Maui, people don’t seem to want to at the moment. Flights to Maui are unbelievably empty. The last time I saw flights this empty was in March 2020, in the immediate days after the start of the pandemic.

Just as an example, this morning’s Los Angeles to Maui flight on American Airlines is operated by an Airbus A321neo, with 20 first class seats and 176 economy class seats. There are 12 seats occupied in first class and eight seats occupied in economy class, so there a total of 20 seats occupied out of 196, meaning the flight is just over 10% full.

Flights to Maui are empty
Flights to Maui are empty

That’s just one example, but those kinds of load factors are the norm rather than the exception across airlines and routes, based on what I just pulled up.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the pros and cons of visiting Maui. If there are any things I’m not considering, by all means chime in.

The upside of visiting Maui

The way I view it, the single biggest benefit of visiting Maui soon is supporting the economy. The wildfires were only in one part of Maui, and other parts of Maui are more or less open as usual. The people living and working in those parts of Maui have bills to pay, and are heavily reliant on tourism.

Helping keep the economy alive is a good thing. Furthermore, arguably flying to and from Maui is beneficial as well in terms of keeping as many supplies as possible flowing to the island. With flights as empty as they are, airlines may very well soon reduce their schedules to Maui, and these are also planes that carry essential cargo that assist with rescue efforts.

It’s important for Maui to maintain good air connectivity

The downside to visiting Maui

As I see it, there are two downsides to visiting Maui in the near future.

I think the first major concern is worrying if you’re getting in the way. You have many thousands of people who have been displaced and lost their homes. Is staying in a vacation rental or hotel as a tourist potentially preventing a local being accommodated there? Is renting a car taking away transportation that a displaced local may need?

While I think it’s a valid concern, practically speaking there seems to be plenty of inventory in terms of vacation rentals, hotels, rental cars, etc. Now, that might be because not enough is being done for those who have been displaced, but as tourists that’s not something we have much control over.

The second major concern, frankly, is if you’d even want to visit Maui. Some people save up for a once in a lifetime trip to Maui, and might just not want to vacation as the island faces its biggest devastation in decades. It’s not just the physical destruction, but it’s also the emotional toll on the community, as residents are heartbroken. It’s almost like vacationing in New York City right after 9/11.

Hawaii is an incredibly special place

Bottom line

Maui is dealing with an unbelievable tragedy, as wildfires have burned much of West Maui. In addition to over 100 people losing their lives, entire communities have been destroyed.

This raises the question of when it’s advisable to vacation in Maui again. I don’t think there’s an easy answer here. On the one hand, tourism helps the economy on the rest of the island, and authorities are even encouraging this kind of travel. At the same time, vacationing in a place that has just dealt with such a tragedy has its downsides as well.

Where do you stand on traveling to Maui? Would you do so, and if so, when?