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As tourists seek refunds for upcoming Maui trips, Airbnb offers muddled response

For an economy heavily dependent on tourism, Maui has come to rely on platforms like Airbnb to generate revenue.

But as the island looks to recover from the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, the booking site has fallen short in consistent communication, guests and hosts say, potentially costing both those groups thousands of dollars as a result.

Airbnb has invoked its “extenuating circumstances” policy for all of Maui, meaning hosts and guests with eligible stays can cancel without a penalty and receive a full refund.

In his most recent emergency proclamation, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said all non-essential travel to West Maui “is strongly discouraged through the month of August.”

The duration of Airbnb’s policy is not as clear. One guest shared correspondence from Airbnb showing the company’s policy initially only covered from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11, but then extended it to Aug. 10-Aug. 17.   

According to Airbnb, information on the application of its extenuating circumstances policy is provided to hosts and guests directly through their individual Airbnb accounts. Reservations scheduled further into the future may also become eligible under the policy, depending on circumstances, the company says.

An Airbnb spokesperson declined to comment.

Dashed vacations and mounting financial losses

For Wisconsin resident Sebastian Flores and his family, the idea of fulfilling a long-planned family vacation this November to Lahaina in West Maui, the area most affected by the wildfires, was quickly cast aside as they began to understand the scope of the disaster.

Airbnb instructed Flores to contact his host to request a full refund because, he was told, the company’s extenuating circumstances policy would not apply for a November trip. Flores said he attempted to contact the host more than a week ago, and has tried two or three times since, with no response. 

Flores said Airbnb also indicated it would contact the host on his behalf, but that it had also been unable to reach her.

NBC News contacted a property manager associated with the booking but did not receive a response.

The situation in Maui is complicated by the fact that hundreds are said to remain missing, while cell sites for communication remain down.

Flores remains understanding and sympathetic, but frustrated. 

“It’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing. And if people in Hawaii are requesting tourists not to go there, it’s a no-brainer to cancel or find somewhere else to go.”

Other larger hotel chains, as well as Vrbo, which is owned by the travel company Expedia Group, have implemented policies allowing guests to cancel stays booked through Aug. 31 without penalty.

An Expedia Group representative said it was waiving cancellation policies for conventional lodging bookings to Maui through Aug. 31.  The representative also said it was applying an extenuating circumstances exception for eligible Vrbo reservations in Maui, though the rep said that due to the “ever-changing situation” it is not able to provide a date range for how far out the policy would be in effect. She said guests must first reach out to hosts about a refund, and that Vrbo can provide “further support” if the host is not reachable or does not offer an acceptable resolution.

“Vrbo will provide refunds,” the rep said in an email. “We will support those with upcoming travel to Maui and ensure they are able to come to a reasonable resolution with the host as needed.”

A spokesperson for Marriott, which owns the Westin, Sheraton and Ritz-Carlton brands, said affected bookings for properties in West Maui have waived cancellation fees through Aug. 31. 

In a statement, Choice Hotels, which has one Ascend Hotel Collection-branded property on Maui, said guests may modify upcoming reservations without penalty.

Meanwhile, Airbnb hosts and guests alike say they continue to get mixed messages from the platform.

One Airbnb host, who declined to be identified so as not to jeopardize his business, said the application dates of Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances policy have been “moving targets” and that the company’s inconsistent responses are putting “financial stress” on Maui’s host community.

Difficulty offering housing for locals

On Tuesday, Airbnb announced it was officially partnering with state officials to offer 1,000 housing units to individuals displaced by the wildfire.

For Airbnb host Stephanie Pytlinski, that was the clearest piece of information yet from the platform about making units available. Pytlinski owns four properties on Maui and is agreeing to refund anyone with an upcoming Airbnb booking, even as far out as January 2024. It’s a decision she says is costing her approximately $18,000.

When Pytlinski saw earlier news that Airbnb was working with state officials to make units available, she reached out to the company to let them know her condos could house some of the affected families.

“A lot of people want to help and give their homes to people desperately in need, but we also need some kind assurance that they’re from Lahaina,” Pytlinski said.

Other Airbnb guests say they continue to encounter difficulties accessing refunds for stays that they booked beyond Aug. 31.

Danica Ratkovich of California had booked a stay in a resort in Lahaina for five that was slated for Sept. 1 through Sept. 10 — but she has so far been unable to secure a refund, even though the resort she is staying at said 30% of its staff lost homes and family members in the disastrous fires.

An email from Ratkovich’s destination, Maui Resort Rentals, dated Aug. 13 and obtained by NBC News, said the resort was currently “severely limited in staff support and currently unable to immediately advise on cancellations, refunds or rescheduling.”

According to Airbnb’s website, if it determines that a “Travel Issue,” like an uninhabitable destination, has disrupted the stay, “we will provide a full or partial refund.”

Ratkovich said she reached out to Airbnb and was told by a support chat staff member that her reservation did not apply for the extenuating circumstances policy because she was planning to arrive after Aug. 17. NBC News could not confirm this statement by Airbnb because Ratkovich said she was told it over the phone. Ratkovich said Wednesday she has been trying to “give the resort space to deal with the overwhelming situation,” but intended to call Airbnb Wednesday and try the resort again on Thursday. 

“It is heartbreaking that we are being told by the media and the resort that Maui needs these spaces and all resources for locals,” Ratkovich said.

“We are trying to cancel and open up these needed resources for the locals,” she said.

This post appeared first on NBC NEWS

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