With Maui stricken by one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and other dire consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, some residents are finding solace in having the island to themselves for the first time.
“I don’t ever remember Maui ever being like this,” said Pi‘ilani Uyeda while enjoying a near- perfect day at Baby Beach in Lahaina with her five sons and niece. Uyeda, 31, is a bartender at Duke’s Beach House in North Kaanapali, which has yet to reopen.
“I love that my kids can enjoy time to themselves without the tourists around. We get to go to beaches we never go to when they are here.”
The state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine of trans-Pacific arrivals brought Hawaii’s tourism industry to a screeching halt in April. Although visitor numbers have been ticking upward in recent days, with 418 arrivals to the state Wednesday, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, that’s still well below the nearly 30,000 passengers arriving daily at this time a year ago. (Fifty-two of Wednesday’s arrivals disembarked on Maui.)
The bust came after Maui saw an all-time high of more than 3 million visitor arrivals in 2019. But with a population of approximately 167,400, many residents and county officials were expressing concern about “over-tourism” well before the pandemic rolled through the islands.
Sitting outside the Farmer’s Market Maui natural foods store across from Honokowai Beach Park after buying kombucha, singer and musician Jon Kinimaka, 56, of Napili said he is thankful for this moment of respite for both the community and the island.
“This quarantine, first and foremost, is needed to lower the risk and flatten the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this quarantine has allowed for this land and sea to breathe, heal and flourish,” said Kinimaka, who moved to Maui from Oahu in 1982.
“I watched the boom in tourism at a rapid, increasing pace throughout the years as more and more hotels were erected, many on burial grounds,” he said. “We watched the desecration of our lands and diversions of our waters, all for the tourists’ dollar.”
Pausing on her jog along an empty street near the Shops of Wailea, Kat Place, 62, said she also believes Maui is experiencing a “re-balancing” of sorts.
“I feel like this island has reclaimed herself,” she said. “You can feel her resting and recovering.”
Place said she’s been enjoying the peace and quiet during her morning runs, and loves catching a glimpse of her neighbors out on the resort’s uncrowded beaches.
“Locals who felt misplaced on beaches are now re-embracing and celebrating space that was previously taken up by exclusive lawn chairs,” she said.
Back on the west side at Lahaina Harbor, Maui Preparatory Academy sophomore Niko Banto had just hopped out of the water with a couple of his friends after a surf session.
“It’s pretty nice. We can drive into town and it takes half the time,” said Banto, 15, as he rinsed his surfboard. “There are no surf lessons, so we don’t have to dodge people in the water. It’s just really nice having Front Street to ourselves, even if it’s not the best for the economy.”
Like Banto, fellow Lahaina resident Diana Brownie has mixed feelings about the current situation. A server at the Monkeypod Kitchen in Kaanapali, which is closed until further notice, Brownie was enjoying lunch with her boyfriend at the Paia Fish Market across from the famous banyan tree on Front Street. There were maybe two other people in the place.
“It’s kind of cool but also kind of eerie at the same time,” said Brownie, 30. “It’s nice to have space to ourselves but also sad to see so many people losing their jobs.”
Frankie Baho, 30, is one of those people. A server at Monkeypod’s Wailea location, the Kihei resident said he believes now is a good time for Hawaii to rethink its dependency on outside sources.
“I think this right now should bring to life the fact that there needs to be more things put into effect to help benefit us locals,” he said. “Look around. Without all the tourism, look at how much shut down. Look at how many people aren’t working now.”
While waiting for Monkeypod to reopen once visitors are welcomed back to Hawaii, Baho said he plans to soak up every chance he gets to enjoy a Maui without tourists.
“It feels so much better and it’s so calming. Everything is ours. On the highway, everyone is driving the same speed, the constant shakas, you see the boys on the beach, aunties and uncles everywhere you go. It’s just so nice,” he said.