Tourists evacuated as fires rage across Maui

MORE than 14,000 tourists have been evacuated off the Hawaiian island of Maui this week, with the Hawaii Tourism Authority and its airline, hotel and ground transportation partners stepping in to assist as wildfires rage across the state. Fuelled by hurricane winds and dry conditions, the blazes have been deemed one of the worst natural disasters in Hawaii’s history.

The resort town of Lahaina is one of the most severely affected areas, with a current death toll of 36 people, dozens injured and hundreds missing. Around 271 structures have been damaged or destroyed, with reports suggesting cultural landmarks including a 150-year-old Banyan tree, the Baldwin Home Museum, and The Pioneer Inn, which is operated by Best Western Hotels, have been burnt to the ground.

One of the state’s senators, Gilbert Keith-Agaran, told USA Today, “it’s a real loss. Hawaii and Maui have tried really hard to preserve and protect those places for many, many years…not for the sake of tourism but because it’s part of our cultural heritage”.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority provided up to 2,000 evacuees with temporary accommodations, as well as water, food, shower, toiletries and clothes, at the Hawaii Convention Centre until they were able to fly home or secure their own hotel lodging. The agency also strongly discouraged non-essential travel to Maui, and has urged travellers with plans to visit West Maui in the coming weeks to consider rescheduling.

Hawaii flag carrier Hawaiian Airlines also voiced its commitment to supporting disaster response efforts until recovery is complete, evacuating 12,718 people out of Maui within the first 24 hours at the drastically reduced cost of $19 a seat, as well as issuing a travel waiver to allow guests with travel to and from Maui in the coming days flexibility to change or refund flights.

“This is an incredibly tragic and sad event, and our hearts go out to everyone impacted on Maui and especially those who have lost loved ones,” Hawaiian Airlines CEO and President Peter Ingram said.

“Our teams across our operation are working tirelessly to help those affected, including our nearly 500 colleagues who call Maui home. We send our deepest condolences to those impacted by the fires and will continue to leverage every resource we have to support the Maui community.”

The carrier also provided dedicated space on its aircraft to carrying essential cargo, including blood and medical supplies, medication, food, water, amenity kits and infrastructure equipment for telecommunications repairs; donated and shipped essential supplies for evacuees arriving at Kahului Airport; sent employee members of the Hawaiian Airlines Emergency Assistance Response Team (pictured) to work at the Honolulu Convention Center and other shelter facilities for visitors, among other efforts.

Other airlines have also put in place flexible cancellation policies and exemptions due to the wildfires, including Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada. Some hotels are also implementing emergency policies, with Hilton properties on Mau waiving cancellation penalties through to 14 Aug, while Outrigger Ka’anapali Beach Resort is giving guests the option to change reservation dates at the same rate, or move their booking to another location on Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island.

As of Friday, evacuation orders have been lifted and emergency shelters closed following the extinguishment of the fires in Naʻalehu and Pahala, and the containment of the Lalamilo fire, with Mauna Kea Resort announcing it is back up and running. The Hawaii Tourism Authority is now urging hotels and vacation rental owners to consider how they can help house Maui residents who have been displaced by the fire.

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