When is it safe to go back to Maui? Here’s your natural disaster tourism guide

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By Christopher Elliott

If you have plans to visit Maui soon, you might want to reconsider. Hawaii has just started to recover from a devastating natural disaster.

Hawaii governor Governor Josh Green is “strongly discouraging” travel to West Maui in the wake of the island’s deadly wildfires, which completely destroyed the historic village of Lahaina. Hotels on that part of the island have temporarily stopped accepting bookings of future reservations.

The tragic wildfires in Hawaii, the deadliest in modern U.S. history, have also raised broader questions for travelers. When is it safe to go back to an area hit by a natural disaster? And when does it make sense to book your next vacation there?

When should you return after a natural disaster? 

This is hardly the first time travelers have asked if it was safe to return after a natural disaster. It happened in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. It also happened to Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where its postcard-perfect beaches were peppered by oil pellets after the Deepwater Horizon spill. 

As it turns out, you can plan your next vacation sooner than you think and also help a damaged destination without exploiting it.

“Katrina brought us to our knees,” remembers Sean Cummings, a New Orleans entrepreneur who owns the International House, a boutique hotel in the city’s central business district. “When the storm hit us, we knew we had to do more than just rebuild. We had to reinvent ourselves.”

For the Crescent City, part of that reinvention meant doubling down on its commitment to hospitality.

Howard Leventhal and his wife, Lois, visited from New Jersey in April 2006, just a few months after the disaster. 

“We found the service to be welcoming, friendly and excellent at the hotels and restaurants that we visited,” recalls Leventhal, a retired math teacher. Tourists like the Leventhals benefited from lower prices, post-Katrina — and relished the opportunity to help a city on the mend.

Returning to Alabama’s Gulf Coast

When the Gulf oil spill happened in 2010, Spectrum Capital, a commercial developer based in Jackson, Miss., had just completed a luxury condo on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. The project had already weathered an economic downturn, which delayed its completion. But the spill threatened to sink it.

Instead of throwing in the towel, as many other developers in the area did, Spectrum added luxury furnishings to some of its units and put them on the vacation-rental market. It also unveiled a “clean bed guarantee” that promised hotel-like amenities for its customers.

And it worked. Visitors returned, drawn by the favorable room rates and a promise of better hospitality.

“We feel like survivors,” says Spectrum president Jason Voyles.

Welcome back packages in Colorado after a natural disaster

Disaster can bring out the determination in a place. Consider what happened when a forest fire threatened the Royal Gorge Bridge near Canon City, Colo., in 2013. The fire burned many buildings and took out an aerial tram over the gorge.

In response to that blaze and another wildfire in 2012, tourism officials not only quickly repaired the damage but they also launched an ambitious “welcome back” campaign to encourage people to visit the region and give the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park another chance after nearly the entire attraction was rebuilt.

“I think people feel more fulfilled with this type of vacation, because they realize they are making a direct difference in a local hotel, property, restaurant or attraction,” says Chelsy Offutt, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They feel a sense of pride and ownership when things start to rebuild or come back to life.”

A fine line between support and exploitation

Tourism officials say there’s a fine line between visiting a destination immediately after a tragedy — that’s called disaster tourism, and it’s not pretty — and going somewhere to support it. (Here’s my complete guide to planning a trip.)

But the rewards can be considerable, according to Vesna Plakanis, who runs a guide service in the Smoky Mountains called A Walk in the Woods. Wildfires ravaged the area last year, which hurt their business and those of thousands of other vendors near the park.

“You not only benefit from the feel-good of economically supporting an area that has been hard hit by a disaster,” she says, “you also are likely to find great deals, because hotels and other businesses offer discounts to attract travelers.”

Another bonus: Smaller crowds, which means a more intimate experience, even during high season.

Tragedy can also make a destination downright chatty. Almost without exception, the areas hit by disasters found a new voice in the aftermath. They spoke out on social media and via ad campaigns to let everyone know when it was safe to return.

That’s even true for Miami-Dade County in Florida. After the Zika scare a few years ago led to a wave of cancellations, it found its voice. 

Tourism officials, at first, didn’t want to talk about Zika. But they changed their tune as the number of cases multiplied. Miami launched a public-awareness campaign, called “Fight the Bite,” to keep prospective visitors informed about Zika. More than 70 hotels also signed a “Tourism Industry Mosquito Abatement Pledge” to combat mosquito-borne illnesses.

Your tourism dollars can make a difference after a natural disaster

But perhaps the best reason to return is that your tourism dollars can really make a difference. They did for Estes Park, Colo..A 2013 flood there inundated the main roadways to Rocky Mountain National Park.

“We heard from so many visitors that they had traveled to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park multiple times since they were children,” remembers Elizabeth Fogarty, president of Visit Estes Park. “And because of this connection, they felt an attachment and passion for the area.”

People returned because they loved the park and wanted to see it again. (Here’s what you need to know about health and safety when you travel.)

That’s likely what will happen in Maui after the cleanup. Hawaii relies on tourism, so it will not waste time giving the green light to visit West Maui as soon as it’s practical. Expect hotel and tour discounts for travelers who come back to a place that is not fully recovered from an unspeakable tragedy. (Related: A decade after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is back.)

In the meantime, Hawaii tourism officials are telling visitors to stay away from West Maui until September at the earliest. Depending on how the recovery efforts go, it might take a few more weeks before they’re ready for tourists again. (If you’re dealing with a cancellation and can’t get your money back, please feel free to reach out to my advocacy team. We’re always happy to help.)

That’s the most important part of comeback tourism: the coming back part. It’s an opportunity for visitors to appreciate a destination they may have taken for granted — and for a destination to appreciate the visitors they may have taken for granted.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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