Officials: Hurricane, fire tourism impacts appear slight

Maui hotels, resorts quickly went back to business as usual

A pair of tour boats shelter from Thursday’s strong trade winds along the pali coast. The tourism industry on Maui was back to normal following the threat of Hurricane Lane and the West Maui fires. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui’s tourism industry has been on a roll since recovering from the Great Recession, setting records for arrivals and visitor spending. Then last month’s West Maui brush fires and ominous warnings of Hurricane Lane impacts threatened the tourism juggernaut.

Fielding phone calls at the county’s emergency operations center during the storm, Maui County Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen said she received calls from a lot of panicked visitors who wanted to leave the island as soon as they learned about the approaching hurricane. When airlines were unable to fly them out earlier, the visitors wanted to know if they should stay at their hotels or seek shelter at an evacuation center, Rasmussen said.

“We told them to stay put,” she said, reasoning that it would be “much safer” for them to stay at hotels or condos with amenities such as beds.

Meanwhile, the storm canceled or postponed island events, she said. People wanted to leave earlier, not come at all or stay longer because they couldn’t get out, she recalled.

At hotels and resorts, “there were definitely cancellations,” she said.

Airlines and most hotels allowed people to cancel without penalty, she said.

Many hotels served as evacuation areas, letting people stay in ballrooms and elsewhere, Rasmussen said.

But now, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears the disruptions brought by the storm and fires will turn out to be little more than a bump in the road for the island’s visitor industry, officials told The Maui News last week.

“We haven’t seen any noticeable impacts to Maui’s visitor industry because of Hurricane Lane,” said Leanne Pletcher, director of public relations and marketing for the Maui Visitors Bureau. “The island’s airports, accommodations, activities, roadways, beaches and parks are open, and life on Maui is quickly returning to normal.”

Last week, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority also sought to reassure visitors that it’s OK to travel to the islands.

Tourism officials reported that strong wind shear and trade winds steadily weakened what was a Category 5 hurricane to a tropical storm that eventually turned away from the islands. The storm’s remnants brought “excessive rainfall and flash flooding to localized areas around the state,” mostly on the islands of Hawaii and Kauai.

“Assessments are ongoing on each island to determine any recovery efforts that are still needed to address the impacts of this rare and abnormal weather system,” the authority said. “But, to be clear, the state of Hawaii is fully open for business, and travelers should not be dissuaded at all from making or planning trips to our beautiful island home.”

Maui County’s visitor industry has been breaking arrival and spending records for years, and it’s on pace to do so again this year. In July, Maui’s visitor arrivals were up 8.4 percent to nearly 1.76 million visitors for the year’s first seven months. In the same period, visitor spending has grown 12.1 percent to almost $3.2 billion.

In July, the county’s hotel occupancy rate was 81.2 percent, second only to Oahu. The county’s average daily room rate was $404.05 and revenue per available room was $327.98, both figures well in excess of statewide averages.

Data on Hurricane Lane’s impact on visitor arrivals, spending and hotel occupancy won’t be available until later this month.

Westin Maui Resort & Spa General Manager Thomas Foti declined to report exact numbers of guest booking cancellations from the storm and fires, although “we definitely experienced some cancellations.”

However, he estimated that West Maui resorts saw a reduction in occupancy of 10 to 20 percent.

Then, after the storm passed late Aug. 24 and early Aug. 25, the 760-room Westin fully returned to business as usual by the next day, said Foti, who began a year of service Saturday as chairman of the board of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association.

Even during the crisis, the Westin with 700 full- and part-time employees was very close to fully staffed, he said.

The Westin did not penalize guests who canceled their visits because of the storm, “an act of God,” Foti said.

Some evacuees came to the resort during the storm and fires, he said.

After it was clear the storm had passed Saturday afternoon, the Westin was “pretty close to normal” by Saturday evening and “100 percent normal” by Sunday, Foti said.

Foti credited an “unbelievably resilient staff,” some of whom found alternative transportation to work during the storm and brush fires. The Maui Bus was out for several days.

“We’re super blessed with a group of truly amazing people in the face of a tough situation. We couldn’t be more grateful,” he said.

Overall, the storm and fires were “just disruption at every point,” Rasmussen said.

Most public schools closed for three days. And, government services and island businesses shut down to brace for what were forecast as possible dire impacts. At times, televised weather reports with satellite images of fierce cyclone winds were at odds with the slight rain and gusty winds people could see out their windows.

As an aside, Rasmussen said a Wailuku restaurant that serves several hundred or more meals a day to Maui County workers lost a lot of money when all but essential county government offices closed for three days.

“They just took a huge hit,” she said.

The restaurant operators asked if there’s a county program to compensate them.

“We don’t have any such programs,” Rasmussen said. “It’s an act of God. We don’t have control over that.”

She said another, more widespread, economic impact was the surge of pre-storm buying that happened, with stores like Costco, Walmart and Target “jampacked” with customers buying bottled water, canned goods, batteries and flashlights, among other supplies.

Now that people are stocked up, what happens? Rasmussen asked. “People don’t shop for two or three weeks?”

With a “huge surge” of business before the storm, it stands to reason that “there would be a retreat,” she said.

A Dallas resident contacted The Maui News via email last week to complain of not getting a $1,370 refund for a storm-canceled five-day stay at a West Maui resort. The newspaper contacted the resort manager, who pledged to look into the matter, which involved a separate room-booking agency.

Later, the man reported he was told he’d be getting a full refund.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.

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