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WAILEA, Maui >> The forecast for Maui visitor arrivals is still down through 2024, and the overall visitor count to the state is lower at a time when state revenue is needed to support Maui.

A challenge is that recovery is not as simple as just growing visitor arrivals when it is clear that not everyone on Maui supports returning to pre-COVID-19 visitor arrivals. Those voices were among the loudest at a Dec. 4 HTA community listening session when the Hawaii Tourism Authority encountered strong pushback on a draft of its tourism recovery plan for the island in the wake of the deadly wildfires. An attendee called the meeting a “giant gaslighting session” and described tourism as a “manufactured toxic relationship.”

Meanwhile, research from SMS Consulting, the contractor hired by HTA to develop its recovery plan, shows that airline seats and intent to travel are down as residents, businesses and potential visitors are confused with inconsistent and conflicting messages. Moreover, SMS said visitors also have indicated that they are choosing not to book Maui due to “high cost and change fees” and “out of respect for Lahaina residents.”

HTA Public Affairs Officer Ilihia Gionson said there were about 100,000 fewer visitors on Maui in October, Maui air bookings were lower than usual, and hotel reservations were lower than usual on Maui and across the state. Gionson added that unemployment claims on Maui, which peaked at 8,779 the week of Sept. 16, were still at 5,039 the week of Nov. 25, and that some of the decrease might be because workers have left the island.

The HTA board is slated to vote Thursday on whether to adopt a recovery plan, which could draw from a $5 million tourism emergency fund that was made available when Gov. Josh Green approved the agency’s request to declare a tourism emergency in the wake of the Aug. 8 wildfires, which killed at least 100 and destroyed thousands of buildings. The plan would complement initiatives in HTA’s strategic tourism plan and its community-driven Destination Management Action Plans for each island.

Newly elected HTA board Chair Mufi Hannemann said implementing a tourism recovery plan is important and will continue the second phase of the Malama (“taking care of”) Maui campaign. Hannemann said the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau already has reached the core U.S. market with a Maui recovery plan. Now, he said, the HTA board will consider putting a new malama campaign out for bid that concentrates on amplifying the local voices that want to return to work.

“As much as we have focused on messaging the proper ways to come back to Maui with the respectful, mindful traveler and so forth, I really feel that it is time to pivot off that message and do one that is heavily concentrated on our local (population) to demonstrate to people that still may be resistant to tourism at the local scene that people want to go back to work,” Hannemann said.

He envisions a pivot that is similar to the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association- and other business partner-led campaign Makaukau — We Are Ready. That campaign encouraged the reopening of travel to the islands in October 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown and sent out the message that Hawaii workers were ready to get back to work.

“I really believe that there is a silent majority, who is not as vocal, who are concerned about housing and child care, but if you rank the priority they’ll say that they want to work,” he said. “We can’t just have local people patronize (Maui tourism and businesses); we need visitors from afar — that’s why Maui’s hurting so much. I’m really excited about getting this message out. I think it’s going to be really clear that people — whether they be Filipino, Japanese, Tongan, Samoan, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Caucasian — they all want to go back to work.”

Hannemann said the new locally focused malama campaign, would provide more balanced tourism while supporting aspects of the tourism recovery plans such as encouraging consistent travel messaging, increasing travel arrivals from lucrative markets, supporting small businesses, expanding Maui’s tourism attractions and supporting efforts to get fire survivors out of hotels and into longer-term housing.

Hannemann said the push for a locally concentrated malama campaign to get Maui people back to work dovetails with HTA’s earlier approval to increase incremental marketing and branding budgets in 2024 to support the continued recovery of visitor arrivals from the U.S., Japan and Canada.

The increases, which make up for COVID-19- related budgetary cuts, are expected to address the forecast for deceleration in key visitor markets, which are anticipated to produce slower growth in 2024 for Hawaii’s economy, according to the fourth-quarter forecast released Friday by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. Still, the economists said economic fallout from the Maui wildfires has been somewhat smaller than anticipated with a faster-than-expected recovery for the Maui visitor industry and a more rapid- than-expected recovery of partial employment.

While some in Hawaii’s visitor industry, including Hannemann, view UHERO’s forecast as a bit optimistic, some grass shoots are emerging on Maui. For instance, additional hotel renovations on Maui like the one that is finishing at the Fairmont Kea Lani are returning new inventory and improvements to the market at a time when the recovery needs support.

Chelsea Livit, Fairmont marketing and public relations director, said the resort has completed a culturally focused renovation of 413 suites and 37 villas. Livit said it also is renovating the entire lobby, and on Thursday will open a new 2,000-square-foot cultural center, Hale Kukuna, which will become the lobby’s focus and stay open 24/7 for employees, the community and guests.

In January the resort will open the ocean-facing Pilina bar and restaurant, which Livit said will become an extension of the neighboring cultural center and serve 90% Hawaii sourced ingredients.

Kamahiwa Kawa‘a, the Fairmont Kea Lani’s first on-site manager of Hawaiian culture, said, “Hale Kukuna is meant to be a living, breathing space for Hawaiian culture to be taught, to be shared to thrive to survive. What really sets it apart from all the other cultural centers is that it’s a place where people can come in and really feel like it’s theirs. They can pick up different things that are on display and use them, learn about them and engage with them versus just looking at them or reading a card about them.”

Kawa‘a, a Native Hawaiian who was born and raised on Maui, added, “My hope is that Hale Kukuna is that bridge that connects the community and tourism and kind of gives some light and some hope that the tourism industry, especially here at Fairmont Kea Lani, has really taken a stance to ensure that Hawaiian culture and Native Hawaiian integrity is at its foremost priority.”

The Fairmont renovation is part of a wave of huge investment and repositioning on Maui, such as the the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort; the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua; and the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, Ka‘anapali. All are part of a statewide hotel improvement cycle, which since 2019 has topped $2 billion.

Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said the Maui renovation aren’t likely to have a significant impact on the downturn in the short term because “you have to have demand to drive revenue. Until you have demand, no matter what you do, it won’t make a big impact.”

However, he said Maui improvements likely will support the recovery in 2025 when groups and more transient travel demand returns.

“Maui has run some of the highest average daily rates, and in order to maintain that, you have to keep your product newer and fresher than the typical airport product. Your customers have higher expectations, and you have to maintain that positioning,” he said.

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