Aug 17, 2023 - Economy

How Hawai'i’s tourism industry pivoted to helping locals affected by fires

One of Rainbow Helicopters' choppers takes part in an aid delivery to Maui. Photo: Rainbow Helicopters

In the wake of the devastating Hawai'i wildfires, many businesses that typically cater to the islands' tourism sector have pivoted to focus on relief efforts for locals.

Why it matters: Tourism is Hawai'i's largest industry, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the islands.

  • Hawai'i's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimates nearly 10 million visitors have come to Hawai'i so far this year, spending more than $21 billion.

State of play: Now, parts of the sprawling tourism sector have shifted gears to help in the wake of the deadly blazes.

  • Rainbow Helicopters, a local helicopter tour company based in Oahu, has been delivering much-needed supplies like baby formula, diapers and feminine hygiene products to Maui, company owner Nicole Battjes told Axios.
  • The Pacific Whale Foundation, a marine conservation nonprofit, has used its tour boats to help deliver supplies to those in need.
  • Kaiser Permanente has been operating a first aid station at the Hyatt Regency Lahaina.
  • Restaurants, food nonprofits and culinary programs have joined forces to cook and distribute meals for Maui fire survivors.
  • Hawai'i Gov. Josh Green said earlier this week that 500 hotel rooms are being made available to displaced locals and an additional 500 will be allocated to FEMA workers, per AP.

Zoom in: Rainbow Helicopters' 50 employees have been "donating all of their time" operating flights, shopping for supplies, and loading and unloading donations, Battjes said.

  • The company has already delivered over 3,000 pounds of supplies and has more flights planned later this week.
  • "Hawai'i is obviously all about the people and all about family," Battjes said, adding that "the direct aid has been really powerful."

Worth noting: Businesses that continued tourist-focused activities while the fires were underway have faced criticism.

  • Maui Snorkeling apologized last week after facing backlash for running a snorkeling tour after the fires had begun, noting that the intent was to "donate 100% of the profits to the Maui Food Bank in order to support those affected by the fires."

The big picture: Some locals have criticized a perceived slow official response to the deadly blazes, with some pitching in to create their own pop-up relief centers, CNN reported.

  • Some Native Hawaiians, fearful of losing their properties, have decided not to evacuate their burned out homes for official relief centers. Instead, locals have organized relief networks to bring aid to them, NBC News reported.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that it was working closely "with state, county and federal partners to aid active response efforts and to help survivors jumpstart their recovery."
  • "The Biden-Harris Administration has mobilized a robust whole-of-government response effort to support immediate and long-term rescue and recovery efforts in Maui, Hawai'i," a White House fact sheet published Tuesday stated.

FEMA and the White House did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.

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