In 2014, my family traveled to the island of Oahu in Hawaii. I fondly recall climbing the dormant volcano Diamond Head, attending my first luau, and searching for a humuhumunukunukuapua'a while snorkeling in Hanauma Bay. All things considered, we were a typical "tourist family" seeking both adventure and knowledge as we navigated the island's hotspots.
Five years later, we were privileged enough to return, and this time we attempted to broaden our horizons and look for beaches, trails, and restaurants that were frequented by more locals than tourists. This approach to traveling has become an increasingly popular option for travelers today. Though this may seem harmless, there's been mounting concern among Native Hawaiians and locals about the ethics and sustainability of these tourism trends, and those feelings have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
According to the 2021 Hawaii Tourism Authority's Resident Sentiment Survey, only 53 percent of Hawaiians feel that tourism has been more beneficial than harmful. "It's the lowest measure since we started taking the survey in 1988," Chris Kam, the president and COO of Omnitrak, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Kam explained that some of the primary issues residents are facing include overcrowding, damage to the environment, and higher cost of living. Compounded together, it makes sense that attitudes toward tourism have become more and more negative, hence the calls for a decrease in travel.
According to the 2021 Hawaii Tourism Authority's Resident Sentiment Survey, only 53 percent of Hawaiians feel that tourism has been more beneficial than harmful.
In 2019, a record 10 million tourists visited Hawaii, a group of islands with a population of 1.5 million. A year after the pandemic halted travel, 2021's numbers are quickly approaching — and even surpassing — that rate, creating issues with overcrowding.
This summer, for example, the islands experienced a rental-car crisis. Companies like Hertz and Avis had sold portions of their fleets during the pandemic to save cash, decreasing the number of cars available by more than 40 percent, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA). Then, as travel resurged, the issue of supply and demand created astronomical rental prices that were capping at $700 per day, compared to the prepandemic $50.
Shocked, some tourists began renting U-Hauls instead. This transportation loophole left a number of offices unable to provide equipment to locals who needed to move, prompting the HTA to release a statement saying they "[do] not condone visitors renting moving trucks and vans for leisure purposes."
The displacement of Native Hawaiian people has been a harmful runoff effect of overcrowding for years. Micah Doane, cofounder of the beach-cleaning nonprofit Protectors of Paradise, told The Guardian that his grandmother's family was evicted from the Makua Beach area during World War II so a military training facility could be built. Similarly, the building of luxury hotels has also been used to displace locals. Today, places like Makua Beach are frequented by resort guests who disregard the rules and leave behind excess waste. "You see every day these disrespectful people come and do whatever they want . . . It's to the point where it's kind of hurt an entire community," Doane said.
The pandemic had returned a sort of peace to the islands in which nature and wildlife were able to thrive. Without the usual influx of tourists, researchers from the University of Hawaii were able to see clearer waters, schools of larger fish, and monk seals at Hanauma Bay for the first time in years. Kyle Kajihiro, an activist and lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told The New York Times that tourists tend to treat the islands like a "play land" and ignore their history and the residents' social-justice and environmental concerns. That's why we too often see trash left on beaches, coral reefs damaged by unapproved sunscreens, and sacred sites disrespected.
If not for the fact that countless endangered and threatened plant and animal species call the islands home, tourists should care about and respect the environment simply because Natives and locals are asking them to. Resorts are often owned and run by non-Hawaiians, whose interest in purchasing property (commercial or otherwise) is largely responsible for the state's high cost of living. Meanwhile, Native Hawaiians are disproportionately employed by the tourism industry in low-paying service jobs.
It's important to remember that as tourists, we get to experience the best our destination has to offer without dealing with the realities and stresses of everyday life for those who call Hawaii home.
During an interview with Hawaii News Now, Lawrence Boyd, an economist and associate specialist with the University of Hawaii Center for Labor Education, touched on the rampant economic inequality in Hawaii. "Basically what Hawaii has become is a preferred place for the international 1 percent to buy property," he said. Today, the median price for a single-family home in Honolulu sits at $992,500, while the median household income in Honolulu is $87,470.
Together, it's easy to see how these conditions have led to Hawaii having the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation, with Native Hawaiians being disproportionately affected. "There historically hasn't been enough consideration for how tourism and tourists can contribute to making life sustainable and really livable for the locals who serve them here," Bryant de Venecia, a communications organizer for the workers' union in Honolulu, Unite Here Local 5, told The New York Times.
It's important to remember that as tourists, we get to experience the best our destination has to offer without dealing with the realities and stresses of everyday life for those who call Hawaii home. So before jumping on the next plane to experience your own White Lotus-style vacation, take some time to reflect on the role you would play on the islands and how that would affect the Native population and environment. As tourism continues to evolve based on people's needs, one of the best things we can do as visitors is respect the wishes of the locals who want to preserve their community, culture, and environment.