NBC News asked 11 people, from middle schoolers to the mayor, what they see for the historic town’s future.

The Hawai’i Tourism Authority says the future could be greener and more charitable.

Ilihia Gionson, the public affairs officer for the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, said in October that officials will help establish more agrotourism opportunities, where visitors get to experience the surrounding agriculture while generating income for the farmer or business owner.

Gionson said this could mean, for example, helping to restore or maintain traditional Hawaiian fish ponds, where visitors can also eat the fish later that day.

“How can we circle around that farmer to help build some sort of experience where that then helps the profitability of the farm, helps that farmer employ more people, helps that farmer grow more food?” he said.

Gionson said that tourism is a significant part of the local economy, with roughly 40% of the jobs on Maui supported by visitor spending. Within the first six months of 2023, 1.5 million visitors to the island spent $3.5 billion. However, he said, he’s aware of the criticisms around the presence of tourists in a Lahaina that’s still contending with housing issues and securing basic needs.

“Tourism is definitely a big part of life on Maui as it is right now. Whether or not that continues to be in the future for that region is up to the people of Lahaina,” Gionson said. “Right now, they’re still grieving. They’re still recovering. Before anyone gets into any specifics about rebuilding anything, the most important part is supporting and uplifting the people of Lahaina.”

A state rep: Aiming to restore faith in local government

Representing Lahaina in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, Elle Cochran moved back to her home in town just a day after the fires and hasn’t left since. Helping to coordinate relief efforts in the following weeks, she says she’s seen exactly what her Native Hawaiian community needs.

“A lot of people have just lost faith in government right now,” she said. “Myself being one of them, and I’m a state rep.”

As a representative and a Native Hawaiian herself, she says she’s working to restore some of that faith. To do so, she wants Lahaina residents to be in charge of their own healing. They should recover at their own pace, she said, without the pressures of returning to work and serving tourists looming over them.

“Are our people ready to go back and service guests? Put on the happy face and be Mr. and Mrs. Aloha? No, not at all,” she said.

Opening should be slow, she said, and follow the needs and readiness of residents. Everyone from the state to the county should be more communicative and attentive to local needs, too, she said.

The governor didn’t consult with the local representatives before making the decision to reopen West Maui on Oct. 8, Cochran said. Along with Lahaina’s state senator, Cochran sent Gov. Josh Green a letter urging a delay in the opening, but she said she got no response.

Green’s office did not answer NBC News’ questions about his communications with locals during the disaster, but directed focus to the governor’s press conferences after the fires.

“He just pretended like it never happened, didn’t say one thing,” Cochran said.

She wants to see her city rebuilt for the locals she represents, coming back stronger and more sustainable, with a renewed focus on farming. She envisions small farms, native plant life and ulu trees decorating the hillsides behind Lahaina and family businesses at the forefront.

A local mom of a 1-year-old: Just trying to give local kids a nice Christmas

For Caitlyn Kuskowski, 29, no experience can compare to that of raising her baby in Lahaina’s community of moms. After the fires damaged her home and she was forced to return to her parents’ house in Michigan, she said, she has just been trying to create some normalcy for her 1-year-old son — and kids who lost much more.

“It was a very small-knit community, and everyone was so quick to help you out,” she said.

Though now an ocean away, she wants that sense of togetherness to persist, so she started a program to provide Christmas gifts for displaced Lahaina children.

Star, Sydney, Yolanda Aguinaldo (left) and Luke and Lance Flores (right), Lahaina children who will receive gifts through a sponsor this Christmas.Courtesy of Caitlyn Kuskowski

On her Facebook group “Adopt a Lahaina Keiki,” 300 families have already been placed with sponsors who will buy gifts from their Christmas lists. Kuskowski is coordinating getting those gifts to the families, whether they’re at a hotel, a shelter or a relative’s home.

“It’s really humbling to see how simple these children’s wish lists are,” she said. “Because they have been affected so much over the last few months. A lot of clothes, journals, a little camera … just things that they had before.”

Knowing many are in a worse position than she is on the mainland, she says she wants to keep Lahaina’s spirit alive for her son and other kids who will grow up there.

“These children are only little for a little bit of time,” she said. “I hope that they can continue to grow up in a community that instills aloha and instills a life of simplicity and gratitude.”

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