By Sophie Foster
On Aug. 8, wildfires broke out across the town of Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii, causing tourists to evacuate to neighboring islands in droves. If this is the first concern that comes to mind when hearing about this crisis, it might be time to restructure the way you view the Hawaiian islands.
More urgently, these wildfires caused a massive destruction of local welfare, resulting in the deaths of at least 115 people. Currently, 385 individuals are reported still missing, down from a peak of about 1,200 and with 41 active missing persons cases open, according to CNN.
Particularly alarming, according to CBS, is that this list continues to fluctuate; 245 individuals named in a 388-person-long list were located, only for a nearly equal number of names to be immediately added, even after Hawaii Gov. Josh Green suggested a belief that the number would shortly drop to the double digits. Gov. Green later amended this claim, saying that “numbers of fatalities and missing are often in flux in mass casualty events until investigations are completed.”
This is not the first time in recent years that tourism has been the centerpiece in dialogue about devastating realities faced by Hawaii. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Hawaii, its residents became background noise to overflowing hotels and dismissive beach populations. In fact, according to EuroNews, Hawaiians have long been begging for a decrease in visits to the islands, citing over-tourism and excessive cultural insensitivity directed at Hawaiian natives.
Reportedly, following the travel ban of the height of the pandemic, tourists arrived to Hawaii by the tens of thousands, thus rendering its “roads, beaches, and restaurants practically unusuable,” according to EuroNews. The state continues to grapple with the unflinching demands of the tourism industry, which seems to believe it is doing the islands an economic favor by overwhelming them with unwanted visitors.
Native Hawaiians, meanwhile, such as advocate Lily Hi’ilani Okimura, consider this anything but a favor.
“When people say they should be able to visit Hawaii because ‘it’s part of the United States,’ I tell them they’re missing the point. Sure, you have the ‘right’ to travel wherever you want, but does that make it right?” Okimura said for My Modern Met. “Especially if the Indigenous people and other residents are asking visitors not to come due to a worldwide pandemic, our limited resources, and because our tourism industry exploits our people and culture. What does that say about you to disregard all of this because ‘what about my vacation?’”
Even beyond the scope of the pandemic and its related consequences for the Hawaiian public, the impact of tourists’ unwillingness to respect either the environment or the culture of Hawaii make tourism an ethical quandary at the very best. According to EuroNews, videos have been released of tourists “touching endangered Hawaiian monk seals and hiking on forbidden trails like Diamond Head,” as well as desecrating sites held in sacred or high regard by native Hawaiians.
The issue became so prominent that recently Hawaiian political figures and authorities, such as Mayor of Maui Mike Victorino, began pleading with airlines to decrease their transport to and from the islands.
“We don’t have the authority to say ‘stop,’ but we’re asking the powers that be to help us,” Victorino said in a 2022 press conference amid a mass water shortage across Maui that led to residents being fined $500 for chores like washing cars and watering lawns.
It isn’t a secret that native Hawaiians want us to know that tourism contributes to their displacement for the sake of further tourism development. The tourism industry also plays a role in gentrification through services like AirBNB, as well as the perpetuation of both resource scarcity and racism toward the islands’ indigenous people through tropes such as hula girls.
In 2023, continued travel to Hawaii is a choice made in willful ignorance, not true lack of knowledge. Tourists are not the demographic at risk amid climate disaster, economic turbulence, and health emergencies on the islands — native Hawaiians are.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Caption: The community of Lahaina, in the popular tourist destination of Maui, Hawaii, was recently devastated by wildfires.