Native Hawaiians are asking people to consider not traveling to the islands for a variety of justice reasons, including cultural and environmental stability.
When people demand rights to their ancestral lands and safe environments, visitors have an obligation to listen, even if it means staying away.
Intense tourism has economic advantages for popular destinations, but also disadvantages for cultural and environmental preservation.
Although these factors are debated, the most important consideration in deciding whether it is ethical or sustainable to travel to a tourist destination is too often overlooked: local opinion on the tourist activity.
Because their state is often overwhelmed with tour groups, Native Hawaiians have expressed frustration with the tourism industry since at least the 1990s.
Whether for internships or other business, personal travel or even short-term cultural experiences, an estimated 1.4 billion tourists visit the world each year. This equates to approximately 45 tourists arriving at their destination every second. Not all popular tourist spots see this steady influx of visitors as a positive in 2022.
In the summer of 2019, I took a risk, packed up, and hopped on a plane to Honolulu, Hawaii. A consistently warm climate, a wider range of majors at the local university, and the diversity of the local population all appealed to me.
However, my intention to stay for the rest of my university studies changed within a few months as I quickly learned how expensive life on the coast was.
I also realized that Hawaii — as much as I loved the state and its people — was never meant for me.
In July 2019, a group of Native Hawaiian elders were arrested for protesting the construction of a federally funded government telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain considered sacred ground in the Native Hawaiian culture.
This movement sparked island-wide resistance among local and Native Hawaiians living elsewhere to demand rights to their lands and embrace cultural pride.
“There is an inherent problem in tourism of objectifying the places we travel to…[b]but these places have people in them, inhabitants whose life is closely linked to the environment [tourists enjoy]and who often depend on tourists for their livelihood,” commented researcher Christopher Riendeau on the intersection between tourism and colonialist practices.
In 2019, approximately seven million visitors came to Hawaii. Oahu is the most densely populated and has the most visitors of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s important to remember that while Oahu’s population is well over 800,000 without tourists, the island itself is less than 600 square miles.
In the United States, we are told that tourism saves local people – usually indigenous groups – through economic heights and cultural understanding. The real benefits of tourism for the host populations only exist if they manage to keep control over the practices and frequency of tourism.
Recently, Hawaii has begun to change its tourism practices to better preserve the island.
Some pre-pandemic free beaches and hiking areas on the islands are now only accessible by reservation. Likewise, certain areas will now be closed a few times a week to allow natural ecosystems time to heal and thrive.
When Hawaii was pretty locked down in 2020 and 2021, locals were saddened to see tourists breaking safety protocols, including mask-wearing and quarantine rules. The Native Hawaiian population has been disproportionately and widely affected by several disease outbreaks over time, including this recent pandemic.
Despite making up 4% of Hawaii’s population, 30% of COVID-19 positive patients were of Hawaiian descent as of August 2020.
In addition to state government mandates to protect the environment, Native Hawaiians are calling for Hawaiian vacation dreams to end.
There were many wonderful things to experience on Oahu, but after a few weeks of living there, the allure of “heaven” began to fade.
In 2020, nearly 6,500 homeless people would live on the islands. It was hard to relax on the beach all weekend knowing that once the sun went down the beaches would become someone’s bed.
Many members of the homeless population are those who are chronically homeless. People who are struggling due to the lack of social resources between the middle and upper classes only worry about finding the best view of the beach.
Another source of social tension are the five unwelcome military bases, one of which has recently been the cause of massive water pollution affecting many residents. The history of military abuses that have largely affected Native Hawaiians has prompted calls for the withdrawal of military personnel in 2021.
That’s not to say that my time in Hawaii was entirely negative. I spent most of my days as a student on the University of Hawaii campus at Manoa which is built to support native plants, the mix of city life and peaceful nature is something which I have not yet discovered here on the continent.
The student population at UH Manoa was more diverse than anything I had experienced in Iowa Public High School and, at the time, a year on the campus of Northern University Iowa. For once, I was surrounded by other brown-skinned, plump-looking students. Hawaiian culture encompasses food and family, something reminiscent of the Arabian culture I grew up in.
More importantly, I felt like I belonged, something that had never really clicked for me in Iowa, the state where I was born and raised.
With its palm trees, mix of sandy and rocky beaches, and welcoming Aloha spirit, it’s understandable that many students, families, and individuals flock to the beautiful islands in droves.
To maintain their beauty for generations to come, tourists should remember their responsibility to respect the wishes of Native Hawaiians and locals. Protecting the environment, preserving the culture and knowing when to stay away for the good of the local community is the ultimate demonstration of care and social awareness in tourism.
The columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations with which the author may be involved.