“If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?”
Over the last year, A LOT of people have reached out asking me to drop my insider knowledge on the most pristine beaches, colorful snorkel spots, and lush waterfalls. But … I’ve been hesitant.
Especially in light of *ahem* yOu KNoW wHaT, the tension between tourists and locals has skyrocketed. The last year has been a constant war between those wanting to keep our islands safe, and those seeking an escape from the insanity of the mainland.
We want to share our culture and islands, but ultimately, we want to preserve their natural beauty and not exploit every inch of land (which is honestly such a challenge with social media!).
So … how can you visit Hawai’i without further dividing the local community from tourists?
Coming from a local, here’s a breakdown of how NOT to become “that Hawai’i tourist”.
Disclaimer: I am not kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiian), simply a local whose family immigrated here generations ago. Keep reading for more resources on Hawai’i.
1) Educate yourself about Hawai’i’s culture & history
Hula, lū’au, flower lei, ti-leaf skirts …
While they are (well, most of them) an integral part of our culture here, keep in mind, that’s not true Hawaiian culture – those have been widely commercialized.
Hawai’i is painted as paradise when beneath those rose-colored lenses is a long history of ongoing brutal colonialism. I’ve seen hundreds of comments on social media (especially Tiktok) saying, “it’s all in the past”, “get over it”, “it’s 2021”.
I’ve witnessed countless tourists spew rage because our reality doesn’t fit the media’s portrayed narrative of “a tropical oasis”. No, we can’t “get over it” when injustices are actively occurring within the Native Hawaiian community.
For example …
You don’t understand how grateful we are when visitors take the time to learn about Hawai’i’s history. When travelers ask questions and show genuine interest in our islands, we’re SO appreciative that they aren’t just here for their tropical getaway or Instagram likes, but are traveling intentionally.
No matter where you travel to, learning about another’s culture and history will only enrich your experience. Instead of merely enjoying a scenic viewpoint, you’ll become so much more appreciative of your surroundings and feel a stronger connection to each place. I’m an avid believer that there’s always something to be learned from cultures around us; we just have to be intentional and receptive.
Are we expecting visitors to be experts on Hawaiian culture? Of course not (heck – I grew up here and don’t know nearly as much as I should!), but as long as you make an effort and show an appreciation for our culture that isn’t making a mockery of it, we’ll be far more grateful than you realize!
I highly recommend following @melemaikalanimakalapuaa and @mmmeliss__ on Tiktok and Instagram. They offer a wealth of information about Hawaiian history, culture, and language, and include numerous resources for further information.
2) Stop geotagging
Can we normalize this in 2021?
Geotagging has been SO detrimental to our ‘āina (land) by exploiting hidden gems (many of which aren’t safe to visit period). Places that were once calm and quiet now experience a flood of tourists daily just because of geotags.
I totally get it; geotags are helpful when it comes to encouraging traffic for small businesses, however, let’s not forget – our priority is maintaining the natural beauty of our islands. Instead of tagging a specific waterfall, use a broad location such as the island or city. Geotagging indirectly contributes to the exploitation of Hawai’i.
3) Leave nothing behind but your footprints
This is HUGE! Please please P L E A S E pick up your trash and keep your belongings together!
We strive to keep our islands as island as possible. If you drop something, pick it up. Don’t be that person who pretends to not see that plastic bag fly off into the distance. Here in Hawai’i, we’re huge on respecting the land that has continuously provided us with food, shelter, and water for centuries.
While we’re at it … DO NOT TAKE HOME ROCKS OR SHELLS.
This is our home; a place we’ve graciously opened up to share with everyone. Don’t have the mentality of “take take take” when none of it was ever yours, to begin with. While a lot of superstition revolves around removing rocks from sacred sites, all in all, it’s just plain disrespectful (and illegal!). Imagine if everyone who visited had the same thought of, “I’ll take home one rock” – there won’t be any left for our future generations.
Admire the islands, don’t disrupt or destroy nature (yes, people graffiti trees and break sacred sites), and pick up any trash you find or drop. As we like to say, leave nothing behind but your footprints.
4) Respect our land and animals
Wildlife and nature are kept near and dear to Hawai’i and we do our best to keep them safe in their natural habitat. It’s so easy to forget that the ocean isn’t our home – it belongs to the honu (sea turtles), monk seals, fish, & manō (sharks); we’re simply visitors in their space.
Hawai’i has numerous laws in place to protect our wildlife and endangered species including honu and nēnē goose. In general, stay at least 10+ ft. (3 meters) away from wildlife. Touching these animals is extremely illegal and results in a hefty fine (possibly jail time).
The beach isn’t a zoo – it’s their home. Their wellbeing is far more important than scoring that Instagram picture. Admiring from a distance is the simplest way to help preserve their natural habitat.
5) Don’t do illegal hikes
I’m sure we’re all thinking about the same hike here – Stairway to Heaven.
I agree, it looks SO FREAKIN’ COOL, but sadly it’s very much illegal (despite what you see on social media). A lot of tourists try to justify this by saying, “I went up the legal path” … I hate to break it to you, but you didn’t; this trail isn’t legal in the slightest. In fact, ignoring those “no trespassing” signs only damages sacred Hawaiian land. PLUS, you’re not only putting yourself at risk but also the lives of our first responders as well.
We have plenty of stunning LEGAL hikes here in Hawai’i. Stay safe and enjoy one of these instead.
6) Support locally owned businesses
The best way to support the local community is by shopping at locally owned businesses! Instead of hitting up Walmart for their selection of souvenirs, stop by a store that creates its own products unique to Hawai’i. Contributing to local artists and creators rather than large corporations helps sustain Hawai’i’s economy in a much more impactful way.
When I say locally owned businesses, of course, I’m also including restaurants! After all, you spent how many hours traveling to get here? It’s only fair that you treat yourself to some local hotspots!
7) Listen to native voices
There are sooo many native creators out there (especially on Tiktok) educating the public about Hawaiian culture, island life, history, and language.
With so much insight, it’s only to your benefit to spend time listening to them before visiting. Even while you’re here – if locals are telling you not to go somewhere, listen. Don’t be that tourist who rolls their eyes when they’re called out for doing something illegal or disrespectful (man, do I have countless stories on this).
And let’s be real – watching Tiktoks on Hawaiian history is WAY more interesting than reading a textbook. As long as the person is credible and not a random account spreading misinformation, engage with native voices and don’t be afraid to ask questions!
8) Mind your distance at the beach
This one is, in my opinion, one of the most ANNOYING things you can do as a tourist.
Don’t set up immediately beside someone when you’ve got an entire beach readily available. Unless you visit an overcrowded beach like Waikiki, you don’t need to stay within 10 feet of the person next to you. Even if that means walking an extra couple of minutes, wouldn’t you like to have your own space?
Setting up right next to someone who has their belongings sprawled out is so rude. Be spatially aware and don’t cluster.
9) Ditch the stereotypes
Instead of elaborating on how the media so often paints an inaccurate picture of Hawai’i, let me just debunk the most common stereotypes I’ve been asked about over the years.
- No, we don’t live in grass shacks
- We have cell phones
- You don’t need a passport to visit (if you’re from the United States)
- Our currency is USD
- Island hopping isn’t cheap
- Not everyone knows how to surf or dance hula
- Living here doesn’t make you Hawaiian
- Most of us haven’t visited all the islands
Long story short, don’t believe everything you see online. Remember those resources I listed earlier? 🙂
This barely scratches the surface of what you can do to educate and enrich your experience as a visitor in our home. If you want to learn more, be sure to check out the native creators I mentioned previously. Even though I’ve lived here my whole life, they are FAR MORE knowledgeable than me, and I admire their strength for standing up and giving Hawai’i a powerful voice.
All in all, be respectful of our land, history, and culture. Following these 9 tips will not only help you not become that tourist, but your experience here will be so much richer and meaningful.
Learn, enjoy, and return home safely 🙂 Aloha