Advice | 5 ways to be a good visitor on Maui as tourism reopens

In the wake of Hawaii’s deadly wildfires, it’s better to give than take

Beachgoers enjoy the sea on a near empty beach in Napili, Hawaii, on Oct. 9, the day after the tourism reopening in West Maui. (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)

WEST MAUI — For visitors headed to Maui, the etiquette lessons begin in the air.

Shortly before an American Airlines flight landed at Kahului Airport, a video appeared on the seat-back screens. In the short film, passengers learned about “kuleana,” the Hawaiian word for “responsibility.”

“Kuleana is at the heart of our culture,” the narrator intoned over images of a group joyfully digging their hands into mucky earth. “And as guests in our home, we ask that you share our kuleana during your stay.”

The video is part of the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s “Mālama Hawai‘i” campaign. (Mālama means to care for, protect and preserve.) To alleviate the pressure of overtourism on its culture and natural resources, the state is asking visitors to give back. This appeal has grown even louder following the August wildfires that devastated Lahaina.

The phased reopening of West Maui, which started on Oct. 8, has ushered in a new era of tourism, so these instructions may be more important than ever.

“We want you to leave the place better than you found it,” said Mufi Hannemann, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.

For visitors new to regenerative tourism, Hawaii officials and residents offer tips for traveling “pono,” or righteously. And unlike the islands’ fruits and vegetables, which must remain in the state, you can take these best practices home with you and even carry them on future travels.

As we learned during the coronavirus pandemic, you don’t know what hardships someone may be experiencing. In Maui, this is especially true.

When engaging with locals, be thoughtful and kind. Even a seemingly benign question like, “How are you?” can be loaded. When interacting with hospitality workers, exude empathy and practice patience. Some establishments are still short-staffed or have recently welcomed back islanders who lost loved ones or their homes.

“Please be mindful of what everybody’s going through,” said Gregg Nelson, general manager of the Napili Kai Beach Resort, which reopened on Oct. 8. “The staff is ready to welcome people back, but at the same time, they are a little apprehensive and worried about what guests are going to ask them.”

Keep exchanges simple with an “Aloha” and “Mahalo,” if you feel comfortable using the Hawaiian language.

Immerse yourself in Hawaiian culture

For a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s centuries-old culture and traditions, go beyond surfing the buffet at the luau.

“People come here and want to experience the paradise,” said Paula Martinez, volunteer coordinator at the Hua Momona Farms, “but it would be more valuable if tourists immersed themselves in more of the culture and really learn about the history of Hawaii.”

Though wildfires destroyed Lahaina’s historic district, the island is home to many other historical and cultural attractions, such as the Īao Valley State Monument (reservations required for out-of-state visitors) and the Sugar Museum. In addition to an art gallery, the Maui Center for Arts and Culture hosts some of the island’s biggest events, such as the Maui Ukulele Festival, the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Hawaiian Airlines Made in Maui County Festival, which combines two tenets of regenerative tourism — a cultural deep dive centered on local products.

To graduate from observer to participant, attend a cultural workshop. Whalers Village in Kaanapali has resumed its free classes in ukulele, coconut-frond weaving and hula dancing. On a recent Friday morning, Ron Mikala Ancheta taught a group of Californians and Canadians how to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the Hawaiian Kingdom’s national instrument.

Volunteer in the kitchen or with pets

On Maui, dedicating a few hours of your vacation time to helping others is more critical and appreciated than ever. Once the urgent needs subside, visitors can continue volunteering.

“Tourists who come might do a beach cleanup or they might do a tree planting,” said Maui Mayor Richard Bissen. “They can do something that benefits the island.”

Maui visitors can easily find volunteer opportunities that match their interests and schedules. Maui Nui Strong and Hungry Heroes Hawaii (HHH) are valuable hubs of information. For instance, HHH has sign-ups for Upcountry Kitchen in Kula and Hua Momona Farms, which in addition to meal-prep shifts seeks help with harvesting.

For guests more keen on working in nature than in the kitchen, Maui Cultural Lands holds volunteer outings every Saturday. Guests help with preservation projects in the Honokowai Valley, an archaeologically and ecologically rich area. Tasks have included clearing rock walls and heiau, an ancient Hawaiian temple, and planting native flora.

“We do 90 minutes of work and have lunch and talk story,” said “Ekolu” Lindsey III, the organization’s president. “I will walk people around and introduce them to whatever they’re interested in.”

Maui Humane Society rescued so many animals from Lahaina’s burn site that it had to open a second facility. At its main center in Puunene, volunteers can comfort cats recovering from singed whiskers and burned paws. The nonprofit suspended its Beach Buddies program but is still running Dog on Demand, a similar experience. Depending on availability, visitors can take a dog on a day-long adventure. Each pup comes with a doggy backpack filled with supplies and recommendations for canine-friendly beaches and hikes.

Because of the airlines’ restrictions on transporting animals from Hawaii, the organization is seeking volunteers who can escort a dog or cat to the mainland. Upon arrival, the receiving shelter will oversee the animal’s care and adoption, unless you happen to fall in love with your travel companion.

For volunteer opportunities on other islands, check Hawaiian Airlines’ Travel Pono and the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s voluntourism sections.

Protect the ocean environment

As director of sustainable tourism with Trilogy Excursions, Capt. Riley Coon has strong opinions about skin care. “Spraying sunscreen is not cool,” he said, referring to the harmful nanoparticles contained in some types of spray on sunscreen that can hurt the environment. For an eco-friendly alternative, he recommends sun-protective or UFB clothing and a little zinc oxide on the face.

If you can’t change your sunscreen preferences, choose a reef-safe variety. Since 2021, Hawaii has banned products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which endanger coral.

On the beach and in the water, give marine life a wide birth to avoid stressing the animals and, depending on the species, violating the law. (Hawaii laws protect endangered, threatened and indigenous species including humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, numerous species of dolphins and all turtles.) Also, don’t use the coral as a bench or step stool.

Before heading to the beach, pick up a marine debris monitoring collection bag at the PacWhale Eco-Adventures’ Ocean Store in Wailuku. The MOC Marine Institute also offers beach cleanup kits with 72-hour advance notice. Elsewhere in the state, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii organizes large-scale cleanups and outreach events. The Ocean Conservancy offers a guide for DIY beach missions.

The marine institute rescues, rehabs and releases injured sea turtles. Because of limited access in Lahaina, its staff have not been able to keep as close an eye on the sea turtles as before the fires. If you notice a turtle in distress, call the hotline at 808-286-2549.

When a bag of potato chips costs $6, you can’t be faulted for pulling out your Costco card for essentials. However, for all the rest — restaurants, souvenirs, activities, lodging, tropical apparel — support local businesses.

Wearing Hawaiian shirts is okay,” Coon said, “just don’t buy them at Target.”

Maui Nui First created a directory of “Support Local” businesses for dining, shopping, playing and staying. The Maui Ocean Center and Pacific Whale Foundation, which occupy the same shopping complex in Wailuku, stock locally made and sustainable products, such as bracelets made from recycled ocean plastic, earrings constructed out of cereal boxes and Aloha Collection pouches and totes, a Hawaiian company that donates 5 percent of its profits to conservation organizations.

After the fires, the Napili Farmers Market, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in August, moved to the Sugar Train parking lot and is providing free produce to displaced residents. However, you can still swing by to see what’s in season (star fruit, papaya, coconut) and donate. The Upcountry Farmers Market is still going strong after more than 40 years.

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