MAKENA, Hawaii -- Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, was unequivocal in her call for visitors to come to Maui -- and to come now.
"What the fire didn't destroy, an empty and deserted island will," she told attendees at Signature Travel Network's Owners' Meeting, held earlier this month at the Grand Wailea here. "Please go back and tell your clients that now is the time to travel to Maui to help us in this recovery."
In the initial aftermath of the wildfires, the tourism industry received mixed messages -- and some Maui travel shaming on social media -- about whether or not to visit the unaffected parts of Maui. Hawaii officials, however, were clear early on that areas outside of West Maui were open to tourism. Despite those pleas, the number of visitors to Maui has dropped by about 75%, according to a University of Hawaii study.
Duong said that while Maui needs visitors in 2024, it also need to build back tourism through the remainder of this year. And with travel restrictions to West Maui communities outside of Lahaina expected to end on Oct. 8, per a declaration from Gov. Josh Green, officials are more fervently asking visitors to come and support the island in its recovery.
Signature, which had grappled with whether to hold the meeting less than a month after wildfires ravaged a huge swath of West Maui, including most of the town of Lahaina, ultimately decided that moving forward with the conference here was the right choice.
Signature asked attendees to not only come but to bring donations and open their wallets. All told, more than 7,000 pounds of supplies were flown in, and $400,000 and counting was raised, with additional funds expected to trickle in over the coming weeks.
"You are part of our recovery, so thank you," Duong said. "I appreciate that. We appreciate that."
The Grand Wailea was among properties and suppliers on-island thrilled with Signature's decision.
We love that you are here, and thank you so much for coming," said Kalei 'Uw\0x0113ko'olani, the resort's cultural programming manager and leadership educator. "We are so very grateful."
Sharon Banaag, tourism liaison for the office of Maui mayor Richard Bissen Jr., encouraged attendees to share their experiences on Maui and become ambassadors of the island.
"You tell the story of Maui," Banaag said, adding that as officials help islanders recover, "in order for us to keep helping our home, we would like to be welcoming you as well."
It is a flag Signature seems happy to fly.
"I know the power of this industry and this network in particular," Signature chief Alex Sharpe said. "I really do think that the opportunity for us to be here is an opportunity for us to change the course for Maui for the positive."
A new campaign for Maui
Maui is hoping to further encourage visitation with a new Malama Maui campaign, Robyn Basso, senior director of travel industry partnerships for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, told attendees.
The campaign is centered around prioritizing rebuilding demand from the U.S. market and encouraging mindful travel to Hawaii. The campaign will primarily be distributed via earned digital and social media.
"The message is clear: Respectful, compassionate, responsible travel to accessible areas of Maui, and the rest of the Hawaiian Islands, is not only welcome, it's encouraged now more than ever," Basso said.
I'm glad I came to Maui
Senior editor Jamie Biesiada's first impressions of her trip to Maui, where parts have been ravaged by fire.
The term malama, Basso said, is a sister term to aloha (which she said is commonly used as a greeting but has greater cultural significance, meaning among other things love, compassion and gratitude). Malama means "to care for, to preserve, to protect -- it is truly aloha in action."
Basso emphasized that the majority of Maui, including Upcountry, east, north and south, "are open and welcoming our visitors, your guests.
"And that is critically important to keep the local residents employed and to keep our economy alive."