Maui beckons tourists to stave off economic disaster after wildfires
KAHULUI, Hawaii — Richie Olsten has been in Maui’s helicopter tour business for a half century, so long he’s developed a barometer for the tourism-dependent economy: rental cars parked at the island’s airport.
There are so many since wildfires killed at least 115 people in the historic town of Lahaina that Olsten is worried about a full-blown economic catastrophe. Restaurants and tour companies are laying off workers, and unemployment is surging.
State tourism officials, after initially urging travelers to stay away, are now asking them to come back, avoid the burn zone and help Maui recover by spending their money. Airlines have started offering steep discounts, while some resorts have slashed room rates by 20 percent or are offering a fifth night free.
“I know what a terrible disaster that was. But now we’re in crisis mode,” Olsten said. “If we can’t keep the people that have jobs employed, how are they going to help family members and friends that lost everything?”
The number of visitors arriving on Maui sank about 70 percent after the Aug. 8 fire, down to 2,000 a day.
Olsten’s Air Maui Helicopters now operates one or two flights a day, compared with 25 to 30 before the fires.
As Air Maui’s director of operations, Olsten said his company has laid off seven of its 12 dispatchers. Pilots have been spared because they only get paid when they work. Typically, they fly eight times a day, four to five days a week. That has fallen to one day a week, and only one or two flights.
Many Maui hotels are housing federal aid workers and Lahaina residents who lost their homes. Even so, only half of available hotel rooms are occupied, said Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association.
Even those in South Maui, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Lahaina, are half empty. Hannemann called the situation “pretty grim.”
One of Maui’s most venerable restaurants, Hali’imaile General Store, laid off about 30 workers and temporarily closed after business shrank to one-tenth of pre-fire levels.
“It just fell off a cliff,” said Graeme Swain, who owns the place with his wife, Mara.
They cut staff to preserve cash and spare Hali’imaile the fate of the San Diego software company Swain was running in 2008. When the housing bubble burst and the U.S. plunged into recession, he kept all employees “to the bitter end,” crushing the business.
Swain wants Hali’imaile — which was founded as a general store for pineapple plantation workers a century ago and became a restaurant in 1987 — to last decades more.