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Maui Tourism Businesses Pivoted to Serve Locals After the Fire. Now Visitors Are Coming Back

The slowdown in tourism on Maui has had a ripple effect on businesses around the island. This has prompted some local companies that typically cater to visitors to pivot and serve the needs of displaced residents in West Maui.

For some, it’s a given — but for others it’s a new business model.

Prior to the Maui wildfires, Hawaiʻi Tours was running about a dozen tours a day. But since Aug. 8, they’ve put their drivers and fleet to work in the recovery.

Christopher Ishizaka’s new title at the company is West Side Wildfire Disaster Relief Coordinator.

“We have vehicles, right? We have drivers,” Ishizaka said. “So, we went there the next morning, and we got three bus-loads of evacuees taken out. Went to all the distribution centers at the time and I got to know all the leaders there and I asked them what they needed.”

And it evolved from there. He said Hawai’i Tours now provides a free West Maui shuttle service, non-emergency medical transport, volunteer transport and island-wide supply distribution. Every day, the crew meets at the Maui Lani Longs to get their daily assignments.

Hawaiʻi Tours employees make a delivery run to West Maui by repurposing their tour vans. The drop in tourism on the island since the wildfires prompted the company to pivot to serving the immediate needs of displaced Lāhainā residents.
Hawaiʻi Tours employees make a delivery run to West Maui by repurposing their tour vans. The drop in tourism on the island since the wildfires prompted the company to pivot to serving the immediate needs of displaced Lāhainā residents.

“Today I’ll be picking up another supply run over at Kahana Gateway getting boxes of one-week supply deliveries to the residents that have been displaced at various hotels and Airbnbs throughout the island,” said Hawai’i Tours’ newest driver Gannon Gilmore of Kula.

Up until now, Gilmore had been self-employed for the last six years as an Uber driver. But once tourism came to a crawl on Maui, there wasn’t much business to be had. While Gilmore wasn’t directly impacted by the fires, his father did lose his place and is now living in a hotel.

Another new driver at Hawai’i Tours, Wesley Miyasto, lost his apartment at Lāhainā’s Weinberg Court to the fire. Miyasato’s former workplace, Waikīkī Brewing Company, on Front Street was also destroyed in the fire. He’s been staying in the Sheraton Maui for the past month.

“For me, it was more like I can’t just stay at the hotel,” said Miyasato. “This is keeping me busy. I’m helping too. And it feels good, kinda.”

Today, Miyasato is running one of the company’s two Lāhainā Shuttle routes from Nāpili to S-Turns. He said seeing old friends and community members helping out along the route is a bright spot in his day. As the island prepares for the re-opening of tourismin West Maui, Miyasato said he wants to remind everyone, including visitors, that the community is grieving.

“Come with respect,” Miyasato said. “A lot of people still need time because just like a week ago, we’re learning more and more new names of people that were in the fire.”

Over in Makena, Timothy Lara, founder of Hawaiian Paddle Sports, and Griff Dempsey, owner and operator of Aloha Kayaks Maui, offered a little ocean therapy to displaced Lāhainā residents with free kayak tours every weekend last month.

Since the Aug. 8 fires, local businesses have stepped up to offer displaced Lāhainā residents free kayaking tours to aid in stress relief.

“The first one I led was two amazing ladies. One who had lost everything in Lāhainā and the other lady had lost everything in Kula,” Dempsey said. “They were dear friends so they came together and did a little flower ceremony out there and just had a moment on the water.”

Harnessing that healing power of the ocean was something Lara recalls doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He offered free surf lessons to more than 100 residents once the stay-at-home order was lifted.

“We saw how much healing came out of that during that time, and we saw the same need here and knew, for me personally, how healing being in the ocean is and just being physical and just having a distraction from life,” Lara said.

Both ecotourism businesses took a massive hit from the drop in visitors since the wildfires. Dempsey said he’s had 14 cancellations so far since the fire.

“Our company as a whole, we’ve had three tours since the fires. Normally we run Monday through Friday, five days a week,” Dempsey said. “So it definitely had an impact thus far.”

Social media messaging telling tourists not to travel to Maui in the immediate aftermath of the wildfires had a negative impact on the entire island’s visitor industry. Lara said in reviewing his August numbers, gross sales were down.

“I think we did 25% of what we did in 2022, and lost a net of $7,000 for the month of August,” Lara said. “We can sustain breaking even, not making money. But we can’t sustain losing $7,000 a month.”

When asked what drove them to pivot toward caring for the needs of displaced Lāhainā residents, Lara said it was simply kuleana.

“The vision of our company is to cultivate kuleana globally and we do that through ecotours that foster connection. And so we as a company operating in Hawaiʻi and Maui have kuleana to this place,” said Lara. “And what we try to do is impress this upon the global visitor industry that visits us. That they also carry kuleana, not just here but also wherever they’re from. So when things like this happen, we just jump in. Trying to explain why, it’s just because it needs to be done.”

Both Lara and Dempsey are looking forward to a mindful and respectful reopening come Oct. 8. Dempsey said supporting local will be crucial to the island’s economic recovery.

Chris Ishizaka, West Maui Disaster Relief Coordinator for Hawaiʻi Tours, helps load one of the company’s tour vans with supplies to be delivered to distribution hubs in West Maui.

“I think in order for our local economy to recover, we need to make sure our local outfitters are supported. Quite often in most all industries, especially in the ocean activity industry, the reality is they’re not all local businesses,” Dempsey said. “I would say 98% of revenues that comes to Aloha Kayaks Maui stays in our island.”

Lara and Dempsey are working on a website that will be called TheBestForMaui.com to help highlight local companies that have earned designations for benefiting the community, the environment and their employees.

These include companies that have earned the gold standard B-corp certification or members of One Percent for the Planet — a certification given to companies that donate 1% of their gross sales to environmental non-profits operating locally.

“So taking away the emphasis on being ‘the best in Mauiʻ or ‘the best in a place’ and who are ‘the best for that place,'” Lara emphasized. “People talk about replacing the visitor industry. I don’t think we can, but can we shift the visitor industry? How about when we’re giving permits to companies its not tied to just applying for the permit, but to what is your environmental impact? What is your cultural connection? What is the education of your guides?”

For Ishizaka, the relief work that Hawaiʻi Tours has been undertaking costs he estimates at least $5,000 a day just to pay drivers. They haven’t received government aid or reimbursements, but Ishizaka said he plans to continue providing these services under a new non-profit arm.

“Our focus has been to return to work but in a meaningful way. Like this stuff needs to get done anyways. So we’re gonna form our own 501 c(3) called LETS – Local Emergency Transportation Services and basically we’re going to use Hawaiʻi Tours on every island so we can respond quickly on every island,” Ishizaka said.

“I just feel like there’s a need for this. There were no plans about this before this, we were just doing tours. But because it’s been so impactful, there’s no reason that we can’t start this on every island and get some funding to continue doing it.”

Ishizaka said he’s fortunate Hawaiʻi Tours operates on all islands because this allows revenues from other islands to help prop up Maui operations. But he acknowledges that won’t last forever.

He is looking forward to the phased reopening of tourism in West Maui beginning Oct. 8. But like Gilmore, they have mixed feelings.

“It is a sensitive subject. And I completely agree on almost, on literally every side of it. Because I do kinda feel that there’s an element of like maybe we shouldn’t have tourism open up so soon, especially for people going to the West side,” Gilmore said.

“But at the same time our economy is really tied to the tourism industry so without that, it would be a shame to watch the whole island suffer. It’d be nice to find a middle road.”

Source : HawaiiPublicRadio