Skip Maui if you’re going to do this. Some tourists ignore impact of recent tragedy.


Tyler Tuipulotu was on a flight from Maui to Oahu on Aug. 19, about a week and a half after the deadliest wildfire in recent U.S. history displaced thousands of residents, killed more than 100 and swallowed the historic Lahaina town in flames.

Raised in Lahaina, Tuipulotu was planning to spend the weekend with friends and family who live in Honolulu to decompress from the anguish happening at home. 

As the plane took off, Tuipulotu noticed the couple in front of him put their phones up to the window to take videos and photos, and they weren’t being discreet about it, he said.  

Tuipulotu knew what they were capturing – directly below was Lahaina. 

‘We need responsible tourism’: Maui businesses plead tourists to help economy after fires

It made him emotional. “It’s highly disrespectful,” he said. “I’m from Lahaina, and I understand this travesty has happened, but this is not for photos or entertainment … or to show your family back home that you were here.”

When the plane landed, he asked the couple to delete the photos off their phone – they hesitated at first. 

“I said it in the most calm way,” he said. “I’m not trying to cause a problem. I’m only asking out of respect for the people who live here. That’s what aloha is; we just don’t do that.”

Tuipulotu is among the Maui locals who have witnessed tourists acting insensitively as the island works to heal from such a cataclysm. They feel the Oct. 8 official reopening of West Maui to tourism – almost exactly two months after the fires began to rage – is too soon, and are worried tourists will be prioritized over the community’s urgent needs. 

Just two weeks before the reopening, Lahaina residents will be allowed to enter the restricted disaster zones with personal protection equipment to identify their property and assess damage – a stark contrast to welcoming in those on vacation.

‘Such a disconnect’: Posing for photos by the aftermath

When visitors first evacuated the island and the tourism industry shut down in the immediate aftermath of the fires, many of the local businesses that rely on tourism took a hit. They asked people to return – responsibly, of course – and support the island.

“Some have the attitude like, we want to support, which is good to have them spend their money and be respectful,” said Riley Bond, who has lived in Lahaina since she was two years old and works at a coffee shop on the west side.

Unfortunately, a few negative encounters with tourists have left a bad taste in her mouth. 

Just two days after the fires, Bond was driving past an area that had been affected and stopped to mourn when she saw a family of tourists posing for photos right where a new apartment building burned down. She snapped a photo of it and shared it on social media, where it gained traction locally. 

“The photo shows a deeper issue in that I was breaking down at the site of the town where everybody lost everything, and people were taking leisurely photos, and there was such a disconnect,” Bond said.

She said it felt like a “slap in the face” to see visitors posing for vacation photos, but for her, the site was “all I’ve ever known, and it’s all gone.” 

Now, the area is covered in boulders and black tarps. A police presence makes sure no one can loiter. 

Not every tourist is like this, but it takes just a few bad eggs to ruin it for everyone, said Jordan Ruidas, who grew up in Honokowai in West Maui.

“Just come with compassion and empathy,” Ruidas said. “Come knowing it’s not going to be the same Lahaina town you’ve visited before.” 

“We’ve shown you folks aloha for decades. It’s time for you to come and show us aloha this time around,” she added. 

Besides volunteering while on Maui, Tuipulotu hopes visitors do “their research on what’s going on in the community” so they’re “aware of their place” and “cultural surroundings.”

Why aren’t some locals ready for West Maui to reopen to tourists? 

Ruidas said she was “taken aback” when Hawaii Gov. Josh Green announced on Sept. 8 that tourism would reopen in Lahaina in a month. 

“It was a lot sooner than what us community members feel is appropriate,” she said. She added that those who work in hospitality should return to work if they feel ready but shouldn’t feel forced. 

On Saturday, Ruidas started a petition asking Gov. Green to delay the opening so the community could have more time to recover. It also urges officials to shift their focus from the tourism industry to the dire challenges faced by those affected by the fires: childcare, schooling, housing and mental health. 

Ruidas’ children are among those who are commuting over two hours to attend school on the other side of the island since theirs no longer exists. Families whose homes burnt down and don’t have stable housing are shuffled from one hotel room to another. Many are struggling with the psychological toll of the tragedy. 

In 24 hours, the petition garnered over 3,000 signatures. By Wednesday morning, it had more than 5,400. 

“There’s a lot of frustration from our locals in the town as tourism opens,” Tuipulotu agreed. “They don’t want to be looked at differently or repeat their stories every time.”

In an emailed statement to USA TODAY on Tuesday, the Office of the Governor said: “The decision to reopen West Maui to tourism on October 8 was made after weeks of meetings and conversations with a broad spectrum of stakeholders within the Lahaina community that included hundreds of working-class families and small businesses devastated by the wildfire.” The office denies any claims the decision was made behind closed doors with executives at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.

Without the slated reopening, 3,000 hotel workers would be laid off, according to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Some people, like Bond, wish for a better safety net during disasters like this, such as unemployment payments for the affected rather than having to go back to work – especially since so many things remain uncertain for West Maui locals. 

“The rest of Maui is ready with open arms,” Ruidas said. “Us on the west side need a little more time to heal and then we will be ready to welcome you back.”

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at

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