In August 2023, a devastating fire tore through West Maui, completely destroying a town called Lahaina, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Hawaiian island. This disaster tragically resulted in the deaths of 100 people, damaged countless residential homes, and charred the natural environment to an unrecognizable state of ruin. 

As the people of Maui continue to grieve this insurmountable loss, healing –for the land and for the people– has proven to be an uphill battle. Over half a year later, the area’s local economy continues to struggle, its environment is still mostly in ruins and many of its residents are unfortunately still displaced.

The Guardian reports, “Hawaii’s Democratic governor, Josh Green, reopened Maui to tourists at the end of October, spending millions in marketing campaigns urging visitors to return to and save the island – despite residents’ pleas to wait until fire survivors had been rehoused.” These are millions of dollars that could have instead been allocated towards increased disaster relief, housing for displaced residents, welfare assistance and other resources for the people of West Maui. This misguided leadership decision begs the question: Does tourism hurt the people of Hawaii more than it helps them? 

Maui locals’ mixed feelings and varying opinions on how the island should move forward reveal a larger problem that is affecting all of Hawaii: the state government’s mismanagement of excessive and unregulated tourism, compounded by the failure of visitors to treat the islands and the locals with the proper consideration and respect. 

Instead of leaving Hawaii and the well-being of its people solely in the hands of the profit-driven government, insight must be sought from the local communities who have long histories and true connections to the land and the culture. 

From responsible tourism to the suspension of tourism entirely, the range of different solutions expressed by Hawaii residents is vast. The first step is simple: listen to the concerns and demands of the local community. Once the state and national government take this initial action, the change could hopefully lead to a reinstitution of leadership and sovereignty into the hands of the people. 

Hawaii’s political transformation from a sovereign kingdom to the 50th state of the United States must be considered when discussing these current issues. In an interview with NBC, outspoken supporter of Hawaiian sovereignty, Keala Kelly, says, “Once the system of governance in Hawaii was stolen from us, everything about land and water became … this never-ending abusive system of theft.” 

Despite the major impact of U.S. intervention, the Hawaiian archipelago’s native populations have fought to maintain their cultural traditions—particularly their sacred connection to the land and the seas. The state government’s commodification of Hawaii as a tourist project sees the local people being denied their sovereignty with the land and seas once again exploited for profit. 

Another lasting impact of the U.S.’s imperial ventures on the Hawaiian islands includes the institution of sugar plantations, which resulted in an influx of immigrant laborers from Japan, China, the Philippines and other Asian countries. Asians and Native Hawaiians now make up a sizable portion of the state’s population. These indigenous groups and immigrant communities are often the most vulnerable in times of environmental and economic crisis, making it all the more imperative to address their specific needs.

Partially a result of the state’s tourism issue, Hawaii is currently experiencing one of the worst housing crises in the nation, with its rates of homelessness rising and many locals even choosing to migrate to the mainland. Governor Josh Green has proposed several solutions for the overabundance of travelers such as climate impact fees. Green has even expressed a desire to transform a large number of vacation rentals into housing for the locals left unhoused by the Maui wildfires. While these seem like well-intentioned proposals that could yield successful results in limiting tourism and providing aid to the wildfire victims, they do not fully address the numerous concerns of the local people. 

A New York Times article published shortly after the Maui wildfires focuses on the opinions expressed by Hawaii residents on TikTok. Several Lahaina townspeople featured in Kircher’s article were directly affected by the fires and firmly urged tourists to stay away. This perspective and sentiment was understandably common at that time due to the fire’s distressing consequences.

Native Hawaiian and Daily Princetonian writer, Gisele Bisch, outlines all of the issues brought about by “overtourism” in her article, “Hawai’i is not and will never be your vacation ‘paradise’”. Bisch cites several negative effects of Hawaii’s excessive visitors on locals and Native Hawaiians, from the congestion of roads to tourists trespassing on sacred land and the exoticization of indigenous heritage. Traveling to Hawaii as a non-native is a betrayal to Native Hawaiians who are, as Bisch says, “…fighting for our autonomy and deserved place in our own land.” 

In a video posted on a YouTube channel titled “Hello from Hawaii”, the channel owner, a Hawaii local, responds to Bisch’s article. This user’s commentary closely analyzes the piece, agreeing with some of the Daily Princetonian writer’s statements—particularly about the existing tension between locals and tourists. However, it is clear that “Hello from Hawaii” takes an opposing stance to Bisch, welcoming tourists to contribute by being patrons of the local economy. “I like to think that most people are good… most visitors are respectful and good. They want to be here and they want to have a good time. And… yeah, they are sensitive to what’s going on here culturally,” says the channel owner. 

Maui Guide, a travel website dedicated to providing information about the island, has an entire page constantly updated with current information on which areas are welcoming tourists. The page explicitly and repeatedly states that Lahaina, the hardest hit town in West Maui, is absolutely off limits to visitors. 

“Do not step foot in Lahaina Town. Do not take a selfie with someone’s burnt house behind you. This tragedy will haunt our lives as a community forever, and there will be a very short fuse for any disrespectful actions by way of visitors,” writes the author of the page. Despite these warnings, however, the guide also expresses Maui’s much needed economic boost, emphasizing that areas of Maui are still definitely welcoming tourists. They state: “These West Maui area businesses still need support, but it’s crucial visitors be respectful, reverent and helpful.” 

Most locals and natives of Hawaii have strong opinions on tourism, as seen in the perspectives explored within this article. No point of view is more or less valid than the next. For the people of Lahaina, tourists must be urged to stay away to allow the residents to recover and rebuild with no added stressors. But the rest of Maui’s local working-class people, who must rely on the business that travelers bring in to put food on the table, may appreciate the patronage and support. 

It seems the most well-rounded and realistic solution which takes into account the concerns of all Hawaii residents points to an urgent need to change the way tourism is done. The Hawaiian state government plays an integral role in limiting the number of visitors that its islands get and regulating tourists’ impact on the local community and their environment. The travelers themselves, however, also have individual roles to play in uplifting Hawaii and supporting its local economy of working-class communities of color. 

Overtourism, the housing crisis and environmental degradation are symptoms of a problem whose roots were planted in Hawaii centuries ago. The lasting impact of this colonial history is part of an important, ongoing conversation. Travelers are bound to be a systematic part of the problem in Hawaii’s flawed tourism-based economy. 

But until this system changes, tourists visiting the island must confront an uncomfortable and harsh reality: the local people of Hawaii are the ones paying the real cost for their leisure and enjoyment. On an optimistic note, however, this issue puts tourists in a unique position to create lasting positive change for the tourism industry and the people of Hawaii.

Responsible tourism is a concept where tourists consider the impact of their actions on the place they are visiting, encouraging them to engage in behaviors that contribute to local communities. In this sense, this goes from being an idea to a moral value which ensures that tourism becomes a mutual exchange of respect. 

This more mindful approach to travel can include engaging in activities from supporting family-owned restaurants to volunteering at community organizations. Tourism with the local people in mind requires respecting the natural environment and making an effort to learn about local culture and heritage. 

Realistically speaking, it is highly unlikely tourism to Hawaii will be suspended anytime soon. However, this does not mean that we should go on visiting these islands as if they are simply places built for our own enjoyment. It must be said that responsible tourism is not the be all and end all solution to the exigencies of the people of Hawaii, but it is surely a productive step. 

Ultimately, economic prosperity alone cannot help communities like Lahaina and the other affected areas of West Maui. So, when tourists do decide to visit Hawaii—it must be with the intention to preserve the natural environment, to uplift the local community and support the native Hawaiian population. 

Visual Credit: Cyrill Bambilla

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