When Travel Restarts, Hawaiians Are Hoping for a More Respectful Future

When Travel Restarts, Hawaiians Are Hoping for a More Respectful Future
© Getty
By Jen MurphyCondé Nast Traveller

The reefs in Maui are glowing with life. The roads are traffic-free. And while the surf remains crowded, the line-ups are noticeably more local and the vibe full of camaraderie. Maui, like the rest of Hawaii, has been virtually devoid of tourists since March 26, when the state’s two-week coronavirus quarantine curbed visitor arrival to the islands from 30,000 daily to fewer than 500.

In many ways, the pause has been a dream for residents. When will we ever have paradise all to ourselves again? A trip to my grocery store in the hippie town of Paia is a breeze now that I don’t have to search for parking. I can bike the roads without fearing that a distracted tourist might sideswipe me. And my surf commute from the North Shore to the Westside now takes half the amount of time.

Vacation from vacationers has also been a blessing for the environment; a much-needed opportunity for Hawaii’s over trodden natural places to recharge. Turtles laze on the beach, free of harassment, and in the last two weeks, I’ve spotted three endangered Hawaiian monk seals playing in the sea. The resorts that line Kapalua Bay are empty, but a recent snorkel adventure revealed its reefs are teeming with fish diversity. On Oahu, researchers have already witnessed an increase in fish life and improved coral health since the March closure of Hanauma Bay, a snorkel site that usually sees 3,000 daily visitors.

When governor David Ige recently extended the state’s trans-Pacific quarantine through July 31 I felt both anxious and relieved. Stringent travel restrictions have kept Hawaii’s coronavirus numbers among the lowest in the U.S., with just 736 positive cases reported as of June 16. However, they’ve also decimated Hawaii’s economic engine: tourism.
When Travel Restarts, Hawaiians Are Hoping for a More Respectful Future
© Getty Oahu's Hanauma Bay is much less crowded these days.

The waves are packed with surfers because one in three people are out of work. Matt Kazuma Kinoshita, a Maui-based surfboard shaper, presciently started offering coronavirus discounts on boards in early March and notes he’s never been busier. “Locals have nothing else to do but surf, right now,” he says. “And in a few months, when the government money runs out, people won’t be able to afford surfboards.”

Since March, the unemployment rate has soared from three percent to 22.3 percent, one of the highest in the nation. “We are completely dead and struggling for our lives,” says Jessica Pickering, owner of Maui Diving Scuba & Snorkel Center in Lahaina. “I can’t attract one student, even at a discount.” Pickering, who moved to Maui from the mainland in 2017, has had to lay off her 19 employees. In an attempt to stay afloat, she’s beefed up the freediver retail section of her shop to appeal to locals who are spearfishing for food.

The governor says agriculture and technology will be two sectors that help bolster the economy while tourism recovers. However, tourism was such a dominant piece of the economy that the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization estimates that 30,000 people will leave Hawaii by 2022 to find job opportunities elsewhere.

Restarting tourism is unquestionably critical, but many also see a unique opportunity to reimagine the industry in a more responsible manner, one guided by the interests of locals. Last year, Hawaii, a state of 1.5 million people, hosted 10.4 million visitors and those unsustainable numbers have started to sour the aloha spirit. According to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s annual survey, the majority of residents believe tourism brings more problems—including the high cost of living, damage to the environment, and overcrowding—than benefits.

The around 18,000 idle rental cars packed like sardines in former sugar cane fields surrounding Maui’s Kahului airport are a daily reminder of just how many people had been on the roads, particularly the famed Hana Highway. In recent years, residents along the Road to Hana created the Hana Highway Regulation Committee in a community effort to curtail tourists from parking illegally, hindering local motorists, standing in traffic lanes to snap selfies, and trespassing on private property. Since March, the stretch of highway between Kaupakalua Road to Hana Town has been restricted to local traffic in an effort to protect the remote community from the coronavirus. If it were up to most Hana locals, it would remain that way.

That sentiment extends beyond Hana. “I haven’t talked to a single person who misses tourists,” says 'Ekolu Lindsey, whose family has lived in Lahaina since the 1800s. “We’re the last local family on this beach,” he says. “Vacation rentals next door go for $10,000 a week and renters think they can do what they want because they’re on vacation. We’d become beholden to tourists.” The president of Maui Cultural Lands, a grassroots land trust organization, Lindsey notes Hawaii has been marketed as a playground for too long. The reef near his home is struck more than 900 times a year by snorkelers and recreational paddlers. “Maybe it’s time we temper our short-term economic [concerns] for long-term resilience by taking better care of our ocean resources and people,” he says.
When Travel Restarts, Hawaiians Are Hoping for a More Respectful Future
© Getty

Overtourism was also impacting Hawaiian culture. “The moral fabric was changing,” says Lindsey. “People have to work two to three jobs to make a living here. They didn’t have time to pass on knowledge and traditions. With this break, I’m seeing families fishing together again. It reminds me of the '70s.”

At the start of 2020, the tourism authority had pivoted it's messaging around sustainable and cultural tourism, but with its budget slashed nearly 45 percent, who will take on the responsibility of educating visitors? “The majority of tourists come and go year after year without knowing the true meaning of the culture,” says Bullet Obra, a native of the Big Island. As head of watersports at Mauna Lani, an Auberge Resort, he makes it his responsibility to share his culture and the history of the area. “Once I get guests in a canoe, I make the experience more meaningful by sharing a chant or explaining the significance of paddling to our culture,” he says.

Will Elliott, an Oahu native who works in commercial real estate, says there needs to be a shift in travelers' mindsets, too. “When you talk to bartenders, hula dancers, and retailers they tell you their job is not fulfilling,” he says. “They’re entertaining people who don’t care about the culture and that’s heartbreaking.” Most tourists pay $30 for a Mai Tai or $100 for a seat at a luau and that’s their Hawaii experience, notes Elliott. “We need to change the current consumer mindset to a contribution mindset, so people can go into the local communities and experience and understand the culture,” he says. “That’s how you create respectful, socially conscious visitors.”

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