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Maui businesses and officials plea for tourists to return after fires

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After the deadly wildfires on Maui, tourists were turned away. Trips were canceled. And now, three weeks after the fires, scores of flights to the island have been suspended. The planes that are landing are still mostly empty apart from aid workers and journalists. Local businesses and state tourism officials are now making desperate pleas for tourists to return. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On the Blue Bus show on Manao community radio, local DJ Forest has a pitch for listeners streaming from outside the Hawaiian Islands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOREST: Another way you can support Maui - come here.

SIEGLER: Despite what you see on the news about the tragedy right in Lahaina, he continues, the rest of the island is open. Seven hundred and thirty square miles of beauty isn't burned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOREST: The Maui economy relies on tourism. To stay away now will just make the problem worse.

SIEGLER: This is a refrain you're hearing now a lot across the island. Maui typically gets upwards of 3 million visitors a year. Last year tourists spent more than $5.5 billion here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOQUE TROPICAL")

JUNIOR MENDES: (Singing in Portuguese).

SIEGLER: Locals are throwing birthday parties along this beach an hour away from the burn zone. Things feel almost normal. Kids jump and swim in the waves just a few feet from two giant Hawaiian green sea turtles.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGLER: The few tourists who are here still feel a little conflicted.

KENNEDY SYROTA: We were kind of scared that - like, we didn't know if it was kind of, like, looked down upon almost for coming here.

SIEGLER: Kennedy Syrota and a friend are visiting from Canada. Hawaii was a bucket list trip after graduating from university. Syrota says they decided to come to Maui after reading a post from a nearby surf hostel. It called on tourists to return.

SYROTA: We were a little hesitant. We still are. But now, talking to more people, we know that we wanted to be here. We hope that more people come as well.

SIEGLER: Many longtime locals are also still feeling conflicted. At first, it was unimaginable that anyone would or should vacation around Lahaina. To get to all the resorts and golf courses on the west side of Maui, you have to drive through the destruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

SIEGLER: Bully Kotter lost everything in the fire.

BULLY KOTTER: You know, stay out of Lahaina. This isn't a sightseeing place right now. This place is devastated. And it's - I feel fully it's not very sensitive to think about all these people and the trauma that they've gone through.

SIEGLER: But Kotter's lived here for almost 60 years. He runs a surf school. The rest of his family works at resort hotels, and most of them are closed.

KOTTER: I'm conflicted because there's people - they've got three months of savings. What are they going to do? There's going to be a mass exodus of people leaving here.

SIEGLER: A mass exodus is always a big concern after such a huge disaster. But the stakes here may be higher than most considering almost the entire island is dependent on tourism. There was already a labor and housing shortage before the fires. The Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates that West Maui has been losing more than a million dollars a day since August 8.

SNEHAL PATEL: We had a few families evacuate up here into this neighborhood.

SIEGLER: Snehal Patel is doing all he can to keep businesses afloat. He manages vacation rentals in the resorts around Lahaina. One property that he owns was also destroyed. But his seaside neighborhood that he's looking out on from his second-story balcony is untouched.

PATEL: Initially saying that, you know, all of Maui was closed. I don't know if that was the right message because it's hard to bring those individuals back. And when you look at the media coverage, it is just, you know, looping that devastation.

SIEGLER: Patel leads the LahainaTown Action Committee. It's a group of 110 local businesses. Almost all of them burned down. He's organizing meetings this week with federal officials and relief agencies. He hopes that this area along the coast north of town can be reopened by mid-October. That's when the governor's initial disaster declaration runs out.

PATEL: I think that the messaging can shift in some capacity to, come, you know, and visit responsibly. Don't stop where the impact site is. Go directly to your resort. Stay around the beaches that are right at the resort.

SIEGLER: But some of Patel's longtime guests are telling him, for now anyway, they just don't want to come and celebrate big milestones or take a vacation - not when their favorite place is suffering from so much tragedy. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Maui.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2PAC SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.