How Travel Agents Are Handling Hawaii Clients Impacted by Maui Wildfire

A family of five heading to The Westin Nanea Ocean Villas, Ka’anapali in Hawaii had to fly through smoke yesterday as they landed in Maui only hours after a massive wildfire began destroying roughly 10,000 acres of land.

“They said they had a long drive to the hotel last night due to stopped traffic from the fire,” said the family’s travel agent, Caitlyn Gambino, owner of Aum Journeys in Detroit, Michigan. “They had to fly through a lot of smoke yesterday. They could see the flames in the distance as they were driving to the hotel. Pretty scary stuff.”

According to the most recent update on the County of Maui’s website, the wildfire was initially reported at 10:42 a.m. Thursday near the intersection of Waiko Road and Kuihelani Highway.

Fanned by winds blowing 15 to 20 mph, the blaze moved south quickly and jumped Kuihelani Highway, closing that highway initially from Waiko Road to Honoapiilani Highway and later from Maui Lani Parkway to Honoapiilani Highway.

But it doesn’t sound like Gambino’s clients will be terribly scared off for the rest of their vacation.

“They are from California and said it reminds them of the wildfires in Cali,” she said. “They are excited to get up and start exploring the island today and are praying the fires are put out quickly. They just said it was pretty crazy. I think they are used to that stuff. They don’t seem worried.”

But perhaps her clients aren’t worried because they also know they are in good hands with an agent like Gambino, whose Friday was spent mostly glued to the phones and keyboard.

“Days like this are stressful as a travel agent because often you have little-to-no control over it,” she said, “and you just have to do your best to stay informed and present and be able to help in any way you can.

“Also, in this case, phone lines in the area were down for a time, and cell signals were hit or miss because of cell towers, etc., so it was difficult to contact hotels and clients, as well as the time difference being a factor.”

Judy Ruppert, a Hawaii specialist for Avenues of the World in Flagstaff, Arizona, had a little easier time performing damage control Friday, mainly because the Maui-bound family she has booked isn’t leaving for their vacation until the middle of next week.

“If I had clients leaving tomorrow, I’d be on the phone a lot,” said Ruppert. “I would be taking care of calling the hotels directly, talking with managers we are working with, and spending the whole day making sure my clients will be taken care of. But for my clients going next week, I’m just reading a lot and continuing to stay on top of everything.”

On Thursday afternoon, Maalaea and North Kihei residents were ordered to evacuate, but they were later allowed to return to their homes. According to the County of Maui, the number of people who sought shelter was 216 at the Kihei Community Center, 253 at Kamali`i Elementary School and 170 at War Memorial Gym.

“This fire is still an active threat to our community, and residents are urged to remain vigilant of changing conditions,” said Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino in the County of Maui’s report.

Of the two Kihei shelters – Kamali`i Elementary School and Kihei Community Center – both were closed Thursday night, but Kamali`i remained on standby in case flare-ups required it to reopen. The County of Maui Department of Transportation has arranged to have buses transport people from War Memorial to Kahului Airport.

As far as roadways go, the County of Maui reported that North Kihei Road, Kuihelani Highway and Maui Veterans Highway reopened Thursday night to two-way traffic.

“Three helicopters flew much of the day Thursday, after the fire was initially reported at 10:42 a.m. near the intersection of Waiko Road and Kuihelani Highway,” according to the County of Maui update. “The helicopters were grounded after sunset, and they are expected to return to making airdrops after sunrise. All ground firefighter crews were set to work through the night to protect lives and property and to try to contain the fire.”

Although Ruppert said her clients have yet to express any concerns about the wildfire, if they do, she will remind them of the smartest purchase they made during the booking process – travel insurance.

“I always recommend the ‘cancel for any reason’ policy,” said Ruppert, who has visited Maui more than 15 times in the 15 years she’s been selling the island as a travel consultant. And most of my clients know that doesn’t necessarily mean you can just change your mind for absolutely no reason, but in this case, [the insurance companies] will work with you well and that makes our lives better and the clients’.

“You spend a lot of money to go to Hawaii. There is no non-expensive trip to Hawaii, so why not spend a few extra dollars to protect it?”

Both Gambino and Ruppert told TravelPulse they recommend Travel Guard. TravelPulse also recommends other reputable travel insurance companies, such as Allianz Global Assistance and Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection (BHTP).

According to the County of Maui update, Mayor Victorino viewed the Central Maui wildfire from a helicopter Thursday afternoon.

“I’m very happy to report that there have been no reports of injuries or significant property damage,” he said on the website. “The fire came very close to some structures in South Maui, including the Maalaea Power Plant, but firefighters were able to prevent damages.”

According to Reuters, Kahului Airport was briefly closed and flights were diverted because of the smoke, which also forced the closure of two major roads. However, operations were back to normal around 7 p.m. local time.

And Jessica Braack, a luxury travel advisor at Travel Leaders of Jacksonville, still has some time to continue to monitor this story before she sends clients to Maui next week.

Although she also hasn’t received any concerns from them as of yet, she said if she does, she will simply tell them to monitor the situation to see if the area of the hotel they are staying at is affected.

She also said she will share the facts with her clients since that’s an agent’s most important job when there is the potential for panic.

“If you look at Hawaii last year when they had the volcano erupt on [Hawaii Island], there were people who thought their Oahu and Maui vacations would be affected. People didn’t realize they weren’t going to be affected until they called us.”

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