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Why you should 'cancel your travel plans' to Hawaii

There are fears the nine million tourists that visit Hawaii each years are harming the country's culture and environment.

“Cancel your travel plans. Do not come.”

Tourists are unsurprisingly being urged to stay away from wildfire-hit West Maui as locals try to rebuild. But did you know there are wider calls from Native Hawaiians for travellers to “rethink” their trips to all of Hawaii's islands?

This particularly applies if you’re planning to indulge in a holiday brochure-style trip, because locals say this sort of travel is negatively impacting the islands' culture and the environment.

A Slow Factory graphic in front of a burnt out Maui street. There is a sign that reads: Tourist Keep Out.
Tourists are being urged to rethink how they holiday in Hawaii. Source: Getty/The Slow Factory

Tourism has a powerful presence in the state — bringing in US$17.75 billion a year, it represents one-quarter of its economy, but many of the tropes that visitors are sold about its people are plain wrong.

What tourists get wrong with Hawaiian culture?

While there are only 1.4 million residents across Hawaii, a staggering nine million outsiders visit the island every year and this puts a significant strain on culture and the environment.

Kanaka Maoli scholar and activist Uahikea Maile is an assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto. He believes tourism is “quite literally destroying” Hawaii.

Synthetic leis, cocktails in Tiki bars, and even Hula dancing as entertainment are all often mere “bastardisations” of Indigenous Kanaka Maoli culture, he says.

Looking at leis, many visitors think they're being welcomed by locals when they have one placed around their neck at Honolulu airport, but Dr Maile wants to set the record straight. Traditional lei are made from natural flowers, bird feathers, or even human hair and have specific ceremonial purposes which he says become "abstracted" when synthetic versions are given to tourists.

What's wrong with the Hollywood concept of Tiki?

Leis are just one of many misconceptions outsiders have about Hawaii that stem from a myth about Tiki culture created in the 1930s and popularised by Hollywood in the 1950s.

“Tiki culture generally speaking is a Pan-Pacific trope. It’s an abstraction and fetishisation of our religious and spiritual understandings of what those carvings represent,” Dr Maile told Yahoo.

“(It’s) a complete bastardisation of not just Native Hawaiian cultural practices… but largely of the entire Indigenous Oceanic community. This is a significant issue that has transferred globally, homogenising an entire region of Indigenous Pacific peoples.”

Tourists in the water in front of hotels in Hawaii.
Approximately nine million people visit Hawaii each year. Source: Getty (File)

Advertising flipped on its head to urge tourists to stay away from Hawaii

After the wildfires on Maui, Native Hawaiian concerns about tourism harming the state were quickly amplified across social media and in the media.

One viral Instagram post by New York-based non-profit Slow Factory attracted over 70,000 reactions. It co-opted classic posters used to sell Hawaii as a travel destination and “turned them on their head”.

One shows three smiling women carrying a longboard juxtaposed against the slogan: Tourism is consuming land, water, and resources necessary for indigenous Kanaka Maoli to survive. Another features a man in an open Hawaiian shirt against the words: Kananka Maoli folks have been telling tourists not to come to Hawaii for years.

Slow Factory founder and CEO Céline Semaan explained to Yahoo the purpose of the designs was to highlight the “ad versus the reality”.

“Vintage images of American and European tourists coming to Hawaii have been used in ads since the 1950s and 1960s, and we remixed them into a message that is more contemporary, more relevant and represents the wishes of Kanaka Maol,” she said.

"We deliberately used Helvetica font because it's been used to sell us everything and nothing under the sun, so we used it against its commercial purpose."

Locals blocked from traversing sacred mountain

When tourism was shut down during the coronavirus pandemic reef systems healed, sand accumulated around the islands, and locals were able to access beaches, hiking trails and sacred places.

It was a welcome change because before the pandemic, Native Hawaiians had been locked out of some sacred areas. One significant incident occurred in 2019, when state police blocked locals from accessing Mauna Kea mountain because they were protesting plans to build a giant telescope on its summit.

While Native Hawaiians have regained access, and the future of the telescope is now uncertain, tourists are still encouraged to take tours up to the Mauna Kea’s peak. That’s despite Indigenous worldview dictating that it’s a place that should not be visited for recreation as deities live there.

Assistant Professor Uahikea Maile standing in front of a bookshelf.
Assistant Professor Uahikea Maile wants tourists to rethink their preconceptions about Hawaii. Source: Supplied

How to visit Hawaii ethically

If you do decide to visit Hawaii, your trip doesn't have to have a negative impact on the islands. Rather than sticking to hotels and large tours, Dr Maile suggests taking part in what are sometimes called “detours”.

These journeys take travellers off the beaten track and educate them about the critical history of the islands. They touch on issues like environmental destruction by the US military, Native Hawaiian resistance to colonisation, and the fight against new housing developments in the 1970s.

“They unsettle what is popularly thought about in those images of Tiki bars and Hula dancers, pigs on a spit,” he said.

"Because those kinds of normative, iconographic tourism imagery hide the destruction."

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