Ford: In the aftermath of wildfire, Maui needs tourists more than ever

Maui still remains a paradise

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Cost of a loaf of 12-grain bread: $8.29.

Cost of a gallon of regular gas: $4.70.

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Cost of a Mai Tai topped with foam and a slice of pineapple: $18.

Cost of a Hawaiian winter vacation in Maui: priceless. (Of course, that’s in American dollars.)

What is a refuge from winter for many western Canadians is, this year, palpably different. Last August’s wildfires that destroyed the town of Lahaina have had a lingering effect on the life and economy of the island, even as most of this tropical paradise remains unscathed.

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This is a large island; Lahaina, for all its history, is a small town — a regal one, but with a population of about 10,000 it ranks with tourist towns such as Canmore or Sylvan Lake.

Maui still remains a paradise; it still offers the same tourist inducements from boogie boarding to late afternoon boat trips to watch the whales, which come to the warm Pacific Ocean waters to birth and train their young. It never gets old — not the ritual of blowing the conch at sunset to the luxury of cocktails on the lawn when home is buried in snow.

But underneath it all is the reality that the ancient town of Lahaina — the capital of the Hawaiian monarchy — is in ruins. All the “Lahaina Strong” placards can’t disguise the fact that this year is different. Seven months later, the cleanup of toxic waste continues slowly. Gawkers and tourists are barred from the town. The island’s official website states why: “The impacted area and its surroundings are hazardous with unstable structures and sharp metal objects and ash with potentially toxic substances.”

There’s plenty of blame for the wildfire tragedy to go around. In the New York Times, the government is criticized for “failure to adequately warn residents in time for them to evacuate.” The human toll; 101 dead. Yet, as the Times reported, there were 17 calls to emergency in the first minutes of the flare-up. There was minimal response.

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Residents who lost both homes and jobs are still being housed in hotels; the town is still a charred ruin and there has been little good news to bolster spirits. That the ancient and iconic banyan tree — a shady umbrella over a main park in Lahaina that was scorched black, is still alive was worth a front-page photograph in The Maui News. It softened the news that more than 25,000 trees in the urban forest were killed by the flames.

Why should this matter to Canadians? Because those of us in Alberta and British Columbia know the devastating effects and lingering trauma following wildfires that have destroyed whole communities. (For Calgarians, imagine if Canmore was destroyed by fire. Imagine the cost, the heartbreak and the fury if no public emergency warning was issued immediately and residents were burned alive in their homes and cars.)

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Unlike Lahaina, indeed unlike Maui, we have diverse economies, we are not dependent on a single source of income — even where so much of our prosperity depends on the oil and gas sector.

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Maui is not that lucky. Its economic prosperity depends on tourism.

It wasn’t always so. The annual migration of humpback whales made it an economic powerhouse until the whaling industry collapsed. Both sugar cane and pineapple bolstered the local economy. The sugar processing factory still exists, but it’s rusted and has not produced sugar for more than 25 years. The closest it comes is the sugar museum. All the sugar is imported.

You can buy pineapple everywhere, but it’s no longer an agricultural staple. Everything depends on us — largely the visitors who live in cold climates like Alaska, Washington and Western Canada.

Understandably, some visitors are now going elsewhere, either out of respect or confusion about the extent of the tragedy. But here’s the problem: without tourists, Maui will starve.

Britain’s Independent newspaper asks, “Maui’s economy needs tourists. Can they visit without compounding wildfire trauma?”

With both Hawaii’s governor and Maui County’s mayor urging tourists to return, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Catherine Ford is a regular Herald columnist.

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