When Visiting Hawaii

January 7, 2022
Here in the Pacific Northwest on the day after Epiphany, we’re in the grip of winter--with the knowledge that our beautiful summer is still far away. Many of us fantasize about the tropical shores of Hawai'i during these months—only a six-hour plane ride away—and those of you with the means may be actively planning a trip there to escape the Seattle Freeze.

But Hawai’i is so much more than a dream destination for the Vitamin D-deprived souls among us. It is a complex place with a past and a present that is both beautiful and painful. The unfortunate fact is that tourists can be an unwitting contributor to the painful part of this equation, but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many steps you can take to be a more responsible tourist and keep from further strengthening the already entrenched colonization of the Hawai’ian Islands. (And even if you aren’t planning a trip, many of these steps are things you can do from your couch that are still beneficial to the Native Hawai’ian [Kanaka] community!)

First, you can learn—and there is a lot to learn! Hawai’i is more than grass skirts (imposed upon the people by missionaries to replace the more revealing bark cloth garments) ukuleles, luaus, and leis. Here are some ways to do this:
• Watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series, season 5, episode 7 (available on HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video)
• Watch W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America series, season 3, episode 8 (originally aired on CNN)
• Read Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i by Hokulani K. Aikau and Vernadette Vicuna Gonzales (available from the King County Library System as well as a Native Hawaiian bookstore at This book is a wonderfully eclectic version of essays that do a great job on showing the other side of Hawai’i and provided most of the information for this week’s version of The Work.
• Learn about the unpleasant aspects of the United States’ history with Hawai’i, including our country’s role in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, and the manipulation of the vote for statehood. The above book does a great job in this regard.
• Understand the geopolitical reality resulting from the United States’ colonization of Hawai’i and other territories in the Pacific, namely that, in the minds of national security strategists and decision-makers in our government, they became a de facto “buffer zone” for the mainland against possible aggression from the Asian continent. Reflect on how these policies might inform the mindset of people that live in such a "buffer zone".
If you are in fact considering a trip, the most powerful actions you can take are the ones in the planning phase, before you ever leave the mainland:
• First, understand the duality of the concept of aloha—the welcome is intended to be preceded or accompanied by a request for permission to visit. The latter concept has been ignored or trampled upon by so many visitors and colonizers over the years that it has become almost invisible (to non-Natives, anyway).
• Accept that because of the above historical distortion of the spirit of aloha among many other reasons, many Native Hawai’ians simply do not want us to visit (especially now with the Omicron variant raging). I am not saying this to imply that you should never go to Hawai’i again. If nothing else that would be hypocritical of me since I have been there myself and would like to go back someday. But to be aware of these sentiments shows a level of respect in my mind.
• Study the history of the particular island and specific part of the island you’re visiting. The parking lot of your hotel could very well have been paved over a sacred Kanaka site.
• Learn a few Hawai’ian terms. Even something as simple as knowing that traditional Kanaka direction-finding is not in terms of north, south, east, west, and miles, but rather in terms of ma uka (towards the mountains), ma kai (towards the ocean), and ahupua’a (a land division based on a river drainage—"such and such landmark is two ahupua’a away”) can show that you care enough to learn about the native culture.
• Luckily, as of 2020, the Hawai’ian Tourism Authority has a majority Native Hawai'ian leadership for the first time in its history—and they are already taking significant steps to reverse the historically abusive nature of tourism on the islands.
• Choose your hotel carefully. Many hotels participate in the Malama (stewardship) program, by offering a free night in exchange for a day of service from visitors:
• Instead of renting a car from the nightmare that is the Honolulu Airport rental car center, reserve a car through the Turo app/website ahead of time. It’s like Air BnB for cars, so you can give your business to a local. It’s also cheaper and less hassle.
After you arrive, there is still more you can do:
• Look for the locally sourced items at the grocery store—marked by different color shelf tags.
• As your vacation comes to an end you may end up with a lot of empty cans and bottles. If it’s not clear that these items will be recycled by the trash pickup where you’re staying, take them to the local recycling center. The surprised and appreciative reaction from the workers there when I did this tell me that it is not something tourists do very often.
• Use reef-safe sunscreen.
The following websites have more information about organizations that advocate for different aspects of Hawai'ian culture.
Most have donation links:
KAHEA: Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance (Hawai’ian Islands Land Trust) (Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association)

Mahalo (thank you)!

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels