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Here’s how to visit Hawaii responsibly and support locals.
Much has changed in Hawaii over the past few years. As one of the strictest states for pandemic regulations, it took a while for Hawaii to fully “open up” to travelers. Now that it has, eager beachgoers are returning in droves, much to the joy of those dependent on the tourism industry. Not everyone is as excited, though; residents who feel the squeeze from an overabundance of visitors have become more vocal about how disgruntled they are with the tourism industry, in many cases legitimately so.
But there has to be balance when it comes to the largest provider of income in Hawaii. While most of that burden falls upon tourism officials, more and more falls on individual travelers. Being responsible and conscientious visitors is crucial to creating a balance between tourism and the local community—especially now.
Many people talk of the Aloha Spirit and how it’s one of the biggest draws of the islands; however, most people don’t truly understand what it means. The Aloha Spirit is the alignment of mind, heart, and spirit. It allows a person to give freely of themselves without expecting anything in return. But just because this fundamental philosophy doesn’t require reciprocation, doesn’t mean it should be met with anything but respect.
There are many ways that you can give respect to the place you’re visiting and here are just a few. It’s completely understandable that this article and these suggestions may ruffle some feathers, but these are things that need to be said. We promise that if you take a deep breath, read this with an open mind (and heart), and start breathing in the true Spirit of Aloha, you will not only be welcomed to Hawaii with open arms and enjoy your visit that much more; but you’ll be welcomed back.
For many, visiting Hawaii is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that doesn’t come along too often. For those who aren’t regular visitors, it’s easy to just pack a bag and hop on a flight with visions of white sand and mai tais dancing in your head. The harder thing to do is to put time into getting to know the place that you’re going to visit, but it’s important to understand the culture and history, both ancient and modern, of Hawaii. It’s also important to understand the colonial history of the Islands, including what many people view as America’s imperialist occupation of a sovereign nation, along with the various attempts to eliminate Hawaiian culture in the 20th century. Learning about this historical (and contemporary) pain is critical to understanding why Hawaiians are so passionate about their home and how it’s treated.
Here are a few resources to get you started: Bishop Museum and ‘Iolani Palace (check websites and social media ahead of your visit); books: Hawaii’s History by Queen Liliuokalani, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands by Gavan Daws; websites: Native Books (for more books) and Ulukau.org.
Many purveyors in Hawaii are what you’d describe as genuine, but there are definitely some bad actors who sell a knock-off version of whatever it is you’re looking for. Many markets (including chain stores) sell Hawaii trinkets that are made in Taiwan. Most farmer’s markets include vendors who purchased their produce at a chain, bulk grocery store. If you want to ensure you’re buying locally-grown items, ask the vendor but BE NICE about it.
Likewise, the popular experience of Hula should be taught by a kumu hula—someone who trained in a hula halau and earned the right to teach this important tradition. Make sure you’re learning from someone who has the blessing to teach others. Most of the time you’ll be getting the real thing, but keep an eye out for when you’re not.
Sure, with a Disney resort in Oahu, it’s understandable why Hawaii seems like it was created as a playground for visitors; but it wasn’t. Words like pono (righteousness), kuleana (responsibility), and ‘ohana (family) are used regularly because they are key to community values. Think of visiting all of Hawaii as though you are visiting someone’s house. Start by removing your shoes, while also shedding some of the cultural norms that you’re accustomed to. Don’t go poking around in people’s underwear drawers (a.k.a. private property) and places marked kapu (keep out). Don’t be rude to your hosts; remember, they know way more about their home than you do. And help leave Hawaii just a little bit better than how you found it (without asserting your cultural point of view on others).
There are a ton of amazing resorts in Hawaii; trying to choose one can be difficult because they offer so much in the way of dining, shopping, activities, views, and hangout spots. It’s easy to be tempted to stay on-site at your resort all the time, but you won’t get to experience much that way. Sure, there are some great on-site cultural programs, but there’s nothing like getting out and cruising a coastal highway, exploring tide pools on a beach, eating freshly-prepared food from a mom-and-pop place, or shopping for a one-of-a-kind handmade souvenir. If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money in Hawaii, be sure to spread it at a variety of places, and learn a thing or two while you’re at it.
While the entire country is seeing increased costs thanks to the inflation and the pandemic, Hawaii residents deal with inflated costs all the time. The cost of living in Hawaii is the highest of all U.S. states, making tipping even more important when visiting. One of the best things visitors can do to help is put money directly in the hands of hospitality workers by tipping well. It can be a bit confusing to know just when and how much to tip, so here are some suggestions:
– Airport porters: $3 to $5 per bag, more for large/heavy bags.
– Taxi/rideshare drivers: 15% to 20% of the fare; more if they handle baggage.
– Hotel bell staff: $3 to $5 per bag depending on the level of hotel; more for large/heavy bags.
– Hotel housekeeping: $10 base, plus $5 to $10 per night (don’t forget the toddler tax if your kids leave an especially big mess).
– Other hotel staff: based on your discretion and service rendered (including concierge, spa staff, etc).
– Valet service: $5 and up each time your car is brought to you and parked, based on your discretion.
– Restaurants: 20% of meal cost at minimum.
– Activities and group tours: 15% to 18% of retail price; helicopter tours should be tipped $20 per person and customized/individual tours should be tipped 15% to 20% of the retail price.
Contemporary Hawaiian cuisine is full of fresh Pacific fish, produce grown in volcanic soils, and innovative techniques that elevate humble ingredients. Hawaii has its fair share of celebrity chefs from Roy Yamaguchi to Sheldon Simeon, and the cuisine is becoming more popular every day. Though staples like poi (an actual ancient staple of Hawaiians) and poke (pronounce po-kay) may seem outside of your comfort zone, it’s important to give them a try. Oahu and Maui have incredible food scenes with lots of influences from Asia and restauranteurs doing all sorts of interesting things. At Adela’s Country Eatery on Oahu, they’re turning Hawaiian produce like ‘ulu (breadfruit) and taro into noodles. On Maui, farm-to-table restaurant Pacific‘o on the Beach takes produce straight from its farm (O’o Farm) in Upcountry Kula straight to its dining tables in Lahaina.
Believe it or not, one of the riskiest activities in Hawaii is hiking. Hikers get lost all the time, including residents of the area. Be especially careful on hiking trips; don’t hike alone, make sure your phone is fully charged, and carry plenty of water. Most importantly, don’t stray from the paths, don’t climb areas that shouldn’t be climbed, and don’t make bad choices just for the ‘gram. Emergency personnel shouldn’t have to risk their lives simply because you want to get off the beaten path.
Spending time in the ocean is also an inevitable part of any Hawaii vacation, but a LOT of people come very unprepared. Swimming along the coastline can be very dangerous—from rip currents to unexpected waves—and inexperienced swimmers need to understand their limits before trying anything too extreme. Pay close attention to posted warnings and listen to lifeguards and locals. Never swim or snorkel alone if you are unfamiliar with a place. A good rule to follow is to never turn your back on the ocean (especially for a photo), the Pacific won’t think twice about taking your ass (and your camera) out to sea. This is especially true at blowholes, low-lying platforms that the waves are lapping at, and shorelines. Waves are typically the harshest during the winter and on the northern shores.
Home to one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, Hawaii has a lot of physical challenges. Global warming is contributing to erosion and coral bleaching, endangered species like Hawaiian monk seals face a variety of challenges due to marine debris, while Rapid ‘Ohi‘a Death (ROD)—a fungal pathogen—is plaguing Hawaii Island. It’s important that visitors are aware of these issues and do their part to mitigate them. Don’t litter (duh), use reef-safe sunscreen (only mineral sunscreen is actually reef-safe) or rash guards, and thoroughly clean boots after hikes at trailhead stations to prevent the spread of ROD. Pay attention to other posted suggestions on how to keep the island ecosystem safe.
Now here comes the hardest pill to swallow: Hawaii doesn’t need tourists. Yes, tourism is the top industry in Hawaii—it’s been the top industry on the islands since statehood in 1959—but that is NO excuse to act as though residents have to roll over and take the negative impacts from tourism. Entitlement is not welcome on the islands, but for some reason, when non-residents are told things they don’t want to hear in online comment threads, the go-to move is to say Hawaii couldn’t possibly survive without tourism.
No, tourism isn’t going anywhere, but it does need to make some serious changes, and people need to adjust their attitudes and thinking about how almighty tourism is. Key industry players are starting to make those changes with things like Destination Management Action Plans designed to incorporate community and stakeholder input into tourism management on each island (they’re actually very interesting and insightful reads, find them here). They’re requiring reservations for overcrowded, popular sites like Diamond Head and Waianapanapa Park. On Maui, they’re limiting new hotel buildings. All of which help preserve the land, the people, and the culture.
Bottom line: It doesn’t matter how much money visitors spend in Hawaii, it matters how they act and interact with the land and the people. Responsible visitors are welcomed; asshole tourists are not. Come with Aloha and you will receive Aloha in return.
Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Board, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language.
No man is an island :: no island is an island.
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