Hawaii is the poster child of paradise. Its pristine beaches and its people’s hospitality are the first things that come to mind upon the mention of the island’s name. However, Hawaii is far from paradise, as its history is rife with struggles. Since the overthrow of the monarchy, native Hawaiians have not had control over their land. From the start, they were not allowed to vote. To this day, Hawaiians are overwhelmed by tourists and are unable to take charge of the landscape of their island.
Hawaii is presented as the ultimate vacation destination, and coupled with this, Hawaiians depend on tourism for their livelihood. This is true to some extent because of the sheer amount of tourists who visit the palce — 9.4 million in 2017. Not only that, the prevalence of resorts has made it almost impossible for Hawaiians to engage with other forms of livelihood, including traditional ones that are part of their cultural heritage. While tourism is lauded as the savior of Hawaii, it is far from one from the perspective of the natives. Tourism has brought Hawaii multiple problems that encompass the economy, the environment, and the culture. These issues have been so pervasive that majority of native Hawaiians have moved to other states in search of a better life. This expository essay delves on the economic, environmental, and cultural impact of tourism in Hawaii.
A Brief History of Hawaii
The state of Hawaii is comprised of eight islands and is located in the southwest of the United States. Prior to becoming a state of the US, however, Hawaii was first inhabited by Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas Islands, they are followed by immigrants from Tahiti in the 9th or 10th century (Morgan Swenson, n.d.). They settled in groups and were governed by chiefdoms. Hawaii came into contact with Europeans in the late 1700s, which started the influx of European visitors, as well as the introduction of Chinese workers in the island—both events later proving disastrous as new diseases wiped out the native population (Morgan Swenson, n.d.). The last years of the 16th century was marked by a series of battles among chiefs vying for power. King Kamehameha the Great prevailed and established the Kingdom of Hawaii, which was overthrown by American and European landowners and businessmen. This event led to the annexation of Hawaii by the United States (Morgan Swenson, n.d.). Today, native Hawaiians make up 10% of the overall population, while Asians make up 37.79% and whites make up 24.95% of the population (World Population Review, n.d.). What this demonstrates is that there are more foreigners and tourists in Hawaii than natives.
Tourism in Hawaii
Tourism in Hawaii was established upon the overthrow of the monarchy at the end of the 17th century. One man is responsible for the establishment of tourism in Hawaii, Lorrin A. Thurston. He is one of the people who orchestrated the overthrow of the monarchy. He wanted to lure tourists from the United States and Europe and then encourage them to settle in Hawaii. His ultimate goal is to turn Hawaii into a white republic and part of the United States—one of the many manifestations of racism in history. With the annexation of Hawaii by the US, Thurston became the champion of tourism. Thurston focused on making Hawaii into the paradise Americans believe it is. He focused on finding or presenting unique experiences that catered to American tastes. Thus, the commercialization of native Hawaiian culture started with this aim of seducing American tourists to settle in Hawaii.
Since then, the tourism industry has grown and evolved into one of the major contributors to world economy. With the evolution of aviation technology and globalization, mass tourism has become the norm. Tourism has been the major source of income for the state of Hawaii since the 1950s. Hawaii is located in the Pacific Ocean, which makes it accessible to both the US and the Pacific region, though does not experience a scarcity of European travelers (Ishihara & Nagahama). Couple this with the exodus of native Hawaiians in search of better career paths in other states, foreigners and tourists now outnumber native Hawaiians in the island. The state’s focus on mass tourism and profit has moved the needs of native Hawaiians and of the island itself to the peripheries, therefore giving rise to a variety of interconnected issues.
A Note on Mega Resorts
Mega resorts are Hawaii’s tool for attracting tourists. These mega resorts establish and maintain the paradise façade of Hawaii. Mega resorts have commodified Hawaii and its culture into vacation packages. The building of resorts has been given priority over the homes and sacred land of native Hawaiians. The state of Hawaii, which is supposed to prioritize its constituents, has been collaborating with the businessmen and multi-national corporations in the commodification of Hawaiian culture and land. Multiple barriers have been put in place to prevent native Hawaiians from owning prime properties, while non-natives easily buy them. Almost everything in Hawaii—from land to items sold in malls—are too expensive for native Hawaiians to afford with their low-paying jobs at the mega resorts.
The Impact of Tourism on Hawaii
Hawaii is a small island, so everything is connected in a deeper way. Since tourism dominates the economic activity in Hawaii, almost everything also revolves around the industry. However, while tourism is often lauded as an economic savior for many third world countries, as well as Hawaii, tourism has been the source of many issues experienced by natives. In this section of the expository essay, I will discuss the issues brought by tourism and the prevalence of mega resorts on Hawaii’s economy, environment, and culture.
With millions of visitors each year, Hawaii generates $2.07 billion in state tax revenue from visitor spending alone (Hawai’i State Authority, 2019). The industry also supports 216,000 jobs, making it the major employer in the state (Hawaii State Authority, 2019). While the tourism industry seems to be a positive contributor, this is limited only to the bigger picture. Once we take into account the per capita income vis-à-vis the state’s high cost of living, the picture is anything but positive. The state of Hawaii has the highest cost of living in the US. In 2020, the cost of living in Hawaii was 199.1, almost double the national average index set at 100 (Cost of Living Data Series, 2020). Hawaii’s cost of living is even higher than that of the District of Columbia and New York. However, the per capita income in Hawaii does not compare with its high cost of living. A report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) concluded that a resident of Honolulu needs an income of $120,000 per year to live comfortably, while an income of $93,000 is considered “low” for someone living in Oahu (Yerton, 2019). In contrast, the average salary in Hawaii is around $48,672. This does not yet address the wage gap between demographics. When adjusted for cost of living, the average Hawaiian’s income is worth $10,000 less (Yerton, 2019). It is no surprise then that majority of the native and local population is living on the brink of homelessness, or otherwise moved to a different state (Stevens, 2018). It can thus be concluded that the tourism industry only serves the multi-national companies that own the mega resorts, and to some extent, the state, while pushing the native and local Hawaiians toward poverty.
Native Hawaiians have had to live in the mountain area while businessmen and non-natives own prime properties. The building of resorts has demolished or disturbed sacred native Hawaiian land. Likewise, malls are built with tourists in mind.
Mass tourism, or more than 10 million visitors per year, for a small island like Hawaii is simply too much. It is easy to deduce that this magnitude of tourism is simply unsustainable, and native Hawaiians agree (Stevens, 2018). Native Hawaiian’s concern for the sustainability of tourism encompasses sociocultural and environmental issues. For this subsection, I shall focus on the environmental impact of tourism on Hawaii. The environmental damages caused by mass tourism was (noted) in in the 80s. In Hawaii, the most notable impact of the tourism industry on the environment are (1) overuse of land, (2) water issues, (3) increased waste, and (4) destruction of biodiversity.
Mega resorts and malls were built on previously agricultural land. Other infrastructures meant to support the tourism industry, such as golf courses, have been built on sacred sites (Stevens, 2018; Mzezewa, 2020). All these were built with the promise of bringing more jobs in the state, but so far have fallen short. These infrastructures have disrupted the agricultural systems in Hawaii, forcing the population to stop their agricultural practices and livelihood and work instead at the resorts. In a similar fashion, the tourism industry has also led to decreased marine activity in the surrounding waters, forcing people out of the fishing industry.
Being a small island, the natural resources of Hawaii is quite limited. Water resources, in particular, are inadequate for the number of tourists and residents of Hawaii (Ishihara & Nagahama, 2017). Because native Hawaiians were pushed to the mountain areas, there are there are residential areas inhabited by native Hawaiians where county water is unavailable (Ishihara & Nagahama, 2017; “Elina”, 2020). The issue is further compounded by the waste issues brought by the consumer-centric tourism industry. Improperly handled waste from tourists inevitably contaminate the groundwater that native Hawaiians drink or get flushed into the ocean to disrupt marine life (Ishihara & Nagahama, 2017). Proper waste management is necessary to offset the waste produced by the tourism industry.
All of these issues lead the disruption of the rich biodiversity in Hawaii, which comprises 44% of the US’s endangered and threatened plant species (“Elina,” 2020). The decreased marine life around Hawaii may be attributed to the increased waste that pollutes the ocean and on the chemicals found in non-reef safe sunscreen that are harmful to reefs. The issue on the environmental impact of tourism on Hawaii impacts the sustainability of the islands. Without these resources, Hawaii cannot be self-sustaining, and will eventually be unable to support both local lifestyles and tourist consumption. However, this impact extends to the rest of the world, just as the Amazon Fire affects the world. The decimation of marine life and wildlife no doubt has a negative effect on the rest of the world. In other words, we need to save the environment from mass tourism.
Native Hawaiian culture is a combination of the cultures of its first inhabitants—Polynesians and Tahitians. However, Hawaii’s location isolated its people from its relatives, which allowed Hawaiian culture to develop its own distinctive characteristics. For non-natives, Hawaiian culture is comprised of the traditional dance the Hula and Luau-themed parties. This is due to the commodification of Hawaiian culture to entice tourists into the island. The commodification of Hawaiian culture started with the annexation of Hawai’i, as mentioned earlier. However, it continues until today. Hawaiian culture continues to be sold by travel agencies, which is not only disrespectful to the culture but is also destructive. The tourism industry is the main cause of the decline of Hawaiian culture.
Native Hawaiians take pride in sharing their culture with foreigners. However, according to Stevens, native Hawaiians recognize that the tourism industry has merely commodified their culture for the sake of profit (Stevens, 2018). The Hula, for instance, which is a sacred and solemn traditional dance, has been sexualized: “[t]he tourist industry commodifies and highlights this ‘Otherness’ of the Native Hawaiian people. The hula has been transformed from a ‘material commodity’, into an abstract commodity mixing Hawaiian hula with the Tahitian more sexual dance, selling an experience: Romance (pers. comm., Nov-Jan., 2016- 2017)” (Stevens, 2018, p.65). Instead of representing authentic Hawaiian culture to its full extent, resorts present their culture as a form of entertainment, and often in inaccurate and incomplete representation.
Is it Hawai'i or Hawaii? Some research articles as well as locals use Hawai'i, but Hawaii is the more universally accepted spelling of Hawaii.
Another way in which the tourism industry decimates native Hawaiian culture is in the aspect of land ownership. Prior to the arrival of the European visitors, native Hawaiians had no concept of private land ownership (Stevens, 2018). They shared the land, and maintained their sacred areas with respect. With the arrival of the European settlers, Hawaiians were suddenly left without access to their land, and therefore unable to engage with the livelihood that sustained their people for generations (Stevens, 2018). Some groups have been displaced from their ancestral lands in favor of tourism-related projects. Similarly, they have also lost access to some sacred lands as these are demolished for commercial purposes. Much of Hawaiian land, on which Hawaiian cultural identity is based, has been desecrated for the sake of profit that does not enrich the lives of the natives.
Lastly, Hawaiian language is also threatened by tourism. Nowadays, tourists and foreigners outnumber native Hawaiians in the island, which means that fewer people now speak the native language. English is the predominant language of business in resorts. Native Hawaiians are thus required to learn the language if they want to be able to work. Moreover, there is an increasing pressure from companies to make English the lingua franca, which would further push Hawaiian language to extinction.
Based on the facts presented in this custom research paper, the conclusion is clear: that the tourism industry has more negative effects on Hawaii and its natives than positive impact. It has effectively destroyed the economy and made it unlivable for its residents. The tourism industry continues to dominate the island state despite the fact that it has also destroyed the environment, and threatens to push native Hawaiian culture to extinction. The tourism industry has turned Hawaii into nothing more than a cash cow, without regard for its wellbeing. Balance between profit and globalization and respect and preservation of culture and nature, a controversially debated issue, needs to be maintained. This can only be achieved when native Hawaiians are given more control over their land and how their culture is presented.
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