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Maui County tells tourists to come back — just stay out of the burn zone

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There's mounting evidence that downed power lines may have played at least some role in the deadly wildfires on Maui. Hawaiian Electric, the state's largest power company, is already facing lawsuits. And when asked for comment, the utility said, quote, "at this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined, and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review." Meanwhile, the death toll has climbed past 100 and is expected to keep rising as the search continues for hundreds of people still missing.

The fire that burned western Maui forced the lives of many residents of the town of Lahaina into chaos. It also disrupted the island's powerful economic engine, which is tourism. NPR's Jason DeRose joins us now from Maui to talk about the complicated response to the question, should people vacation on Maui in the wake of this destruction? Jason, I got lucky to go to Maui a few years ago on a vacation. It was really awesome. I mean, how big is the tourism industry on Maui?

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: A, it is huge. Last year, visitors spent nearly $5.7 billion here. That's according to the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. And nearly 3 million people visited the island last year as tourists. And beyond that, tourism really touches the lives of nearly every Maui resident in some way.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. But in the early hours and days of the fires, Hawaii's lieutenant governor said Maui is not a safe place to be. And state officials were discouraging nonessential travel. Why were they doing that?

DEROSE: Well, it was about immediate resources, not wanting to take up airline seats that needed to be filled by rescue and recovery workers or not taking up hotel rooms needed for those people flying in to help. And they do plan to house some evacuees in hotel rooms and in home rentals around the state. But more recently, the official message has changed. Here's Maui County mayor Richard Bissen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BISSEN: Please don't go to west side of Maui. Don't go to west Maui. Obviously, there's so much going on with trying to rebuild it, but the rest of Maui is still open.

DEROSE: So there's been a clear shift - just don't go to the burn zone.

MARTÍNEZ: Jason, you've been there for about a week now. How open is the island for business?

DEROSE: It's very open. The power and water are fine everywhere except western Maui. Grocery stores outside the burn zone have plenty of food. You know, the other day I drove past a part of the island where the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons are located. These are some high-end stays. So the argument from the mayor is that someone could be on vacation 20 or 30 miles away from the burn zone and not have any negative effect on the recovery.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, what have you heard from residents about this revised message that Maui is indeed open for tourism?

DEROSE: Well, more than half of the jobs on the island are directly related to tourism, such as hotel workers, restaurant servers, boat tour operators, snorkeling instructors. So they think it's crucial. If tourists cancel their late-summer Maui dream vacations, it could actually hurt real people. Here's resident Christian Galapon, whose aunt is a housekeeper at a resort. Her home was destroyed in the fire.

CHRISTIAN GALAPON: You know, people were asking like, you just lost everything. Like, why'd you clock in to work? And she was like, I still need to make money. Sure, everyone's processing. Everyone's kind of emotional about it. But on the other hand, yes, they still need to support their families, especially now, since they just lost everything.

DEROSE: Something else to mention, A, tourism can actually fund emergency aid. I talked with a tour-boat operator the other day who says she took a group out snorkeling in the morning and used some of the money she made from that trip to buy cases of water and boxes of diapers and such. Then in the afternoon, she fueled up her boat, paying for the gas with money she made from that snorkeling group and did a run to the shore off the coast of Lahaina to drop off those supplies. So many people here view tourism as a both-and solution.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Jason DeRose reporting from Maui. Jason, thanks.

DEROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.

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