On a recent episode of “United Shades Of America” entitled “Hawaii For Hawaiians,” host W. Kamau Bell came to Hawaii to ask a blunt yet legitimate question: can you visit or move to Hawaii and not be an asshole?
It’s a challenging and provocative question, one that’s not easy to receive for those of us who flew here – either directly or via family who settled here in the past – instead of grew here. But it is nonetheless a necessary question to wrestle with.
Historically, foreigners settling in Hawaii hasn’t exactly been great for Hawaiians, as evidenced by severe population decline and forced cultural loss. The downstream effects of colonization are still evident today: Kanaka Maoli make up about 10% of Hawaii’s total population, yet over a third of the homeless population. And there are three times as many Hawaiians living outside of Hawaii than in it.
Hawaiians are increasingly faced with the choice of either leaving their ancestral homeland or remaining here in precarity. It’s impossible to disentangle their displacement from the effects of out-of-state business, be it real estate purchases or the tourism industry as a whole.
Visiting Hawaii and settling in Hawaii are interconnected phenomena. On a 2018 episode of “United Shades Of America” (entitled “Native Hawaii”), Bell interviewed tourists in Hawaii who said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to leave” and “I might not go home.” These are cringey yet familiar sentiments for anyone who lives here and has interacted with tourists before. They are also accurate descriptions of how a lot of people came to reside here.
The most recent “United Shades” episode does a good job explaining the effects of tourism and the military’s presence on local communities. For local people, it likely won’t break any new ground, but for mainland audiences, it’s potentially eye-opening to hear so many people from Hawaii say, unequivocally, that if you come here, you’re an asshole.
In the days after it aired, Bell tweeted that people are reconsidering their Hawaii vacation plans, which I believe, because I know people who feel similarly. Locals have always had a tense relationship with tourists, but ever since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, residents have increasingly appealed directly to individuals to stop coming.
The episode seems to have persuaded some people to stay home, so it was lauded as a success. I’m not so sure that’s the case.
— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) August 29, 2022
My feelings on tourism, tourists and the military are no secret. I’m all for whatever efforts we can make to pivot away from our reliance on tourism and the military, and would love for future generations to inhabit a Hawaii with less of both, if not experience that reality personally.
But I don’t get the impression that asking or telling people not to come is a viable way to reduce tourism overall, or mitigate its inherently harmful effects. I’d be happy to be wrong about this – it would be wonderful if we could solve our overreliance on tourism simply by waving our fingers at tourists at the airport. But if anything, the only people who will be deterred are exactly the kind of thoughtful, conscientious visitors we want to come here.
The millions of obnoxious people who vacation in Hawaii to post selfies and slap seals probably aren’t going to care about how many people tell them not to come, no matter how loudly or how reasonably they say it.
I’ve regrettably watched my hometown transform from a mostly residential community into a full-blown tourist destination within my lifetime. I would much rather interact with tourists who are aware of their impact and want to be responsible than concentrated crowds of yahoos who just want to drink and yell at the beach.
I’m also wary of the direction these arguments tilt toward. In his book “The World In A Selfie,” Italian journalist Marco d’Eramo offers a rigorous and scathing rebuke of the global tourism industry, specifically UNESCO’s well-intentioned but ultimately self-destructive efforts to balance cultural preservation with commercial appeal. After detailing the extractive and annihilative effects of tourism, d’Eramo arrives at a surprising yet compelling conclusion.
He calls migration and tourism “complementary, symmetrical faces of modern travel” that are “reviled incarnations of otherness” with political implications: “For the Right, the Other whom it is legitimate to hate is the immigrant; for the Left, racism against the Other manifests itself as the derision of tourists.”
Migration is a defining characteristic of human activity, and tourism may very well be its inexorable obverse. Plus, it’s not like local people are never tourists themselves. Nativism is rarely a good thing, even when it comes from a good place.
Educating tourists about how tourism hurts local people – Hawaiians in particular – is essential and desperately needed, but it is a pathway to policy change, not a substitute for it. And that’s what needs to happen if we are to be serious about addressing the problems of tourism: large-scale political action on multiple fronts.
There are activists and organizations that are trying to provide more sustainable tourist alternatives: Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Pacific Discovery and GIVE, to name a few. We can and should be supporting those efforts, and holding them accountable to make sure they are true to their purported missions.
Of course not everyone who comes to Hawaii will be willing or able to work in a lo’i or restore native plants. So let’s legislate a more equitable split of tourism’s profits between the hotel owners et al and the local working-class people who keep the industry running, maybe something more closely resembling a 50/50 split, like how it is between players’ unions and team owners in professional sports. When nearly 10 million people are vacationing here every year, the money is there, it’s just a matter of making sure it’s going where it needs to go.
We can choose to provide higher wages and better benefits for local people who work in the tourism industry, all while aggressively investing in various affordable housing models. As Kaniela Ing says in the “United Shades Of America” episode, “Tourism only works when the people who work here are a permanent underclass.”
In the meantime, we need to develop other industries that can approximate the economic capacities that we stand to lose by reducing tourism. This will give us a stronger mandate to build the kinds of parameters around tourism that balance the scale more in favor of local people.
There are choices we can make, actions we can take. Tourism poses problems, and it won’t be easy to untether ourselves from the source of those problems.
But one thing is for certain: we can’t solve any of them by asking nicely, or demanding fiercely, or trying to convince everybody that we’re assholes for coming here. Even if we are.
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