Maui businesses are begging tourists to return after wildfires

Maui businesses are begging tourists to return after wildfires

Javier Cantellops, a Maui boat captain and dive tour operator, has an urgent message for people considering visiting the popular vacation destination: Head to Hawaii’s second-biggest island asap.

Local business owners say calls from some government officials, airlines and celebrities to stay away from Maui after wildfires destroyed the town of Lahaina, killing at least 114, were inappropriate. With many tourists canceling planned trips, small businesses in Maui are hurting.

“The west side is devastated and Lahaina is closed off, but Maui is still open, and the No. 1 way to support Maui during the crisis is to come back. We need returning visitors and their smiling faces,” Cantellops told CBS MoneyWatch.

Cantellops estimates that in the past week alone, his two businesses — Maui Dreams Dive Company and Island Style Diving — have lost $35,000 to $38,000, respectively, in revenue from canceled bookings. They are both based in Kihei, which is on Maui’s southwest shore roughly 20 miles from Lahaina.

“The No. 1 way to support Maui during the crisis is to come back,” said Javier Cantellops, who owns two dive companies in the area recently devastated by wildfires.

Courtesy of Javier Cantellops

“That’s real revenue and those are real wages, and I am just one company. Imagine multiplying that by 100,” he said. “We are very reliant on tourism and returning visitors, and taking that source of revenue away because of some tragedy that happened elsewhere is irresponsible.”

“Now we’re down to nothing”

The loss of revenue was immediate for restaurants, farmers and activity operators. Without it, people who live and work on parts of the island untouched by the fires will be hindered in their efforts to support those who lost everything, business owners told CBS MoneyWatch.

“This community is tight-knit and we are volunteering, trying to help everyone as much as possible, but we cannot help the west side if we are now in jeopardy of losing our jobs and employees,” Cantellops said.

Typically, his companies host four to five excursions per day, including boat trips and scuba certification classes that run between $250 and $500 per person.

“Now we’re down to nothing,” Cantellops said.

Families worry about permanent displacement after Maui wildfires


Thai restaurant owner Nutcharee Case is also feeling the effects of the wildfires as tourists shy away from Maui. As part of the massive relief effort, she has been feeding wildfire survivors by cooking and shuttling free meals to Lahaina.

“We have been very slow. But we still need tourists to come to the island. We need them so that we can support locals who were affected,” Case told CBS MoneyWatch. “We still have a nice beach and restaurants that tourists can support so we have enough money to support the others.”

Typically, her clientele consists of half tourists and half locals. Locals are still dining out, but the tourists are nowhere to be seen, she said. As a result, her business is down sharply.

Still recovering from COVID

Businesses that supply local restaurants with fresh produce are also concerned about being able to sustain operations, especially after the blow COVID-19 recently dealt the entire industry.

“We all suffered immensely. It was a big disruption with restaurants shutting down,” said Ryan Eareheart, owner of Okoa Farms, a family run farm in Kula on Maui.

Ryan Eareheart, who operates a farm in Maui, said restaurants have canceled their produce orders due to a lack of demand.

Courtesy of Ryan Eareheart

The farm grows 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables across 35 acres, which it sells to wholesalers, restaurants and to the general public at its recently opened store as well as at a local farmer’s market.

Wildfires burned down two of the Lahaina restaurants Okoa sells to directly. Other clients’ restaurant buildings remain intact, but they now lack electricity or potable water and are closed for business.

“Personally our business could sustain that because we’re predominantly here to serve our local community, but we’ve already seen a drastic reduction in one week of our wholesale orders because restaurant sales are down,” Eareheart told CBS MoneyWatch.

He also underlined the importance of tourists patronizing businesses that remain open on parts of the island that are unaffected by the fires.

“It’s a time of mourning, but we are all going to be mourning a whole lot more if we don’t have that income from tourists coming,” he said.

Gabe Lucy, president of Sail Trilogy, a Maui sail and snorkeling trip operator that recently moved its operations from Lahaina to Maalaea, also wants to set the record straight that Maui is open for tourism.

“Mass layoffs are happening, and that’s going to create greater suffering for Maui,” said Gabe Lucy, president of Sail Trilogy, a boat trip operator on the island.

Courtesy of Gabe Lucy

“Maui is open, Lahaina is not. That’s the message. There’s a lot of noise that’s hard to work through, but as long as you don’t want to go there and gawk at it, we’re going to need tourism and responsible visitors,” he told CBS MoneyWatch.

“Mass layoffs are happening, and that’s going to create greater suffering for Maui,” Lucy added. “Other parts of the island still need to thrive for Maui to survive. We don’t want to go down a path where it takes us so much longer to recover.”

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