The wildfires on Maui, which have been linked to dozens of deaths and burned much of the historic district of the town of Lahaina, may also have long-term impacts on the tourism industry that plays an outsize role in the island’s economy.
Local officials have asked visitors making nonessential trips to Maui to leave, and have strongly discouraged others from making such trips while the island is in crisis mode.
Tourism was the largest single source of private capital for Hawaii’s economy in 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. That year the 10.4 million visitors who traveled to the state spent nearly $18 billion, the agency said.
Maui accounted for almost a third of the nearly $49 million that visitors spent on average per day in the state that year, the Tourism Authority said. But even that figure doesn’t quite capture how important tourism is to the local economy. The Maui Economic Development Board estimates that the island’s “visitor industry” directly or indirectly accounts for roughly four out of every five dollars generated on the island.
Before the wildfires, Hawaii’s tourism economy was still recovering from its pandemic-induced visitor slump. Last year the state counted more than nine million visitors, according to official data. During the first quarter of this year, the 2.4 million visitor arrivals by air reflected a 21.5 percent increase compared with the same quarter of 2022.
The fires have halted that recovery in its tracks, at least for a while.
Tijana Brien, 36, said she had immediately run into problems after flying into Maui on Tuesday from California with her husband and two young children. There was no electricity at their hotel, and they saw a huge cloud of smoke from the parking lot.
They ended up staying at another resort, but it had no electricity or food. Then Ms. Brien’s phone lost cellular service for about 15 hours. Eventually, the family decided to cut the trip short and fly home.
“Lots of people feel anxious to get home,” she said from Maui’s Kahului Airport on Wednesday evening. “We feel very lucky to be able to leave, but also it’s our obligation to so we’re not consuming resources for the people living there.”