I live in Hawaii and these are the 6 things I wish every visitor would do to be more respectful and responsible

·11 min read
A woman posing with a green surfboard amid lush green trees.
I grew up in Hawaii and far too often, I see tourists being disrespectful.Kathleen Wong
  • I grew up on Oahu and still live in Hawaii. All too often, I see visitors being disrespectful.

  • There are six things I wish travelers would do to be more responsible tourists in Hawaii.

  • Start by researching the culture, meet locals, stay off social media, and support local businesses.

I'm a Hawaii resident and all too often, I see visitors being disrespectful. There are six things I wish they would do instead to be a more responsible tourist in Hawaii.

A woman posing for a picture wrapped in a town in front of a waterfall in Hawaii
I grew up in Hawaii and still live on Oahu as an adult.Kathleen Wong

As someone who grew up in Hawaii and still lives here as a resident of Oahu, I feel lucky to be able to enjoy the raw natural beauty and exceptional weather of this remote island chain on a regular basis.

To show my appreciation, and so others may enjoy it well into the future, I always make sure to be respectful and leave places as they were when I arrived. Sometimes I'll even pick up others' trash on my way out.

Unfortunately, many visitors to Hawaii don't behave in the same way. Locals, including myself, frequently catch tourists being disrespectful, acting like Hawaii is their tropical playground. This disrespect can come in many forms.

On Oahu, I'll drive to the North Shore from Honolulu and see tourists parked at a beach called Laniakea, also known as Green Turtle Beach for the turtles that bask on its sandy stretch. Despite signs telling you not to feed or get too close to them, I see tourists pose right next to the endangered animals for photos.

Just a month ago, at Bowls, a surfing spot I frequent near Waikiki Beach, a monk seal — also considered endangered — was resting on the beach and I saw a tourist family let their young child run around it. And over the years, I've seen popular hiking trails and beaches become overrun and covered in litter.

Of course, I don't think every visitor to Hawaii does these things. But in my experience, enough do to exhaust the locals beyond just me. A 2020 survey found that 67% of Hawaii residents think their "island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people." I agree.

But because about a quarter of Hawaii's economy hinges on the tourism industry, tourists aren't going anywhere.

However, according to Pauline Sheldon, a professor emerita at the University of Hawaii's Travel Industry Management School, told me she thinks tourism in Hawaii can be reshaped to educate curious visitors without depleting resources. "It's becoming evident that tourism can transform the visitor, but tourism can also transform the destination for the greater good," she said.

By making more thoughtful choices, you can have a more authentic experience in the islands and directly support Hawaii and the local community. Here are the six ways to do it, that I wish more tourists would do on any trip to Hawaii.

Before your trip, spend time researching Hawaii — and not just the best beaches. Learn about Hawaiian culture, history, and values.

Men in traditional Hawaiian attire address a group of travelers.
There's much more to Hawaiian culture than just beaches and hula dancing.The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

When planning any trip, in addition to scheduling out your itinerary, it's important to learn about your destination beyond the major things to do.

In this case, take time to learn about Hawaiian culture and history, including its values, and put those learnings into action when you're here. I don't expect you to learn everything, but there are a few key things to understand to ensure you see the state through an accurate lens.

"Many Native Hawaiians feel that tourism has not delivered on its promises, and there are certainly elements of some activities, attractions, and marketing campaigns that present a distorted or misinformed picture of Hawaiian culture," said Malia Sanders, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association.

For me, that's tourists coming to Hawaii thinking the island is just hula dancers in grass skirts and coconut bras.

"If you visit, know that there are expectations when you are here," she said. "Know that you have kuleana, which means a responsibility, duty and privilege to learn, aloha, and mālama, take care of and respect our home."

For example, you probably already know that aloha is a common greeting. But it means so much more; it's a philosophy of being welcoming and kind to others with no expectation in return. As a visitor, you should understand aloha and show it to others.

Likewise, Native Hawaiians have lived in harmony with nature for many years, and respecting the land, or aina, and ocean is expected of anyone. So don't litter or take parts of the island, like rocks back home with you.

A good starting point to learn about Hawaiian culture is the Go Hawaii website, where you can learn common Hawaiian phrases, history and stories of goddesses like Pele, and how Hawaii came to be.

When friends visit me for the first time, I like to recommend that they watch chef and television personality Eddie Huang's "Huang's World" episode in Hawaii, which explores modern Hawaiian identity through the eyes of local folks like farmers and restaurant owners.

I also ask my friends to check out Honolulu Civil Beat, a local nonprofit journalism outlet, to learn some of the issues Hawaii is currently facing, such as a housing crisis. These resources help break down the misconception that Hawaii is just an idyllic paradise.

Book Hawaii hotels with cultural advisors who will help you learn about Hawaiian culture in a respectful way.

A group of people participating a cultural tradition in Hawaii.
Be sure to book a hotel that employs a Native Hawaiian cultural advisor on-site who is dedicated to educating guests on Hawaiian culture.The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

In Hawaii, cultural practitioners are key figures in perpetuating Hawaiian culture, like a hula dance teacher, called a kumu. These knowledgeable people have spent many years working hard at their craft, and in the past decade, have become an important part of the hospitality industry to educate visitors.

Clifford Nae'ole is the award-winning Hawaiian Cultural Advisor for The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua and helped pioneer educational programs in the tourism industry. Each year on Maui, he hosts the Celebration of the Arts, where the public can participate in ceremonies and hands-on demonstrations, such as storytelling, or mo'olelo, by highly regarded practitioners across the state.

When choosing your hotel, Nae'ole encourages visitors to pick one who employs a Native Hawaiian cultural advisor who is dedicated to educating guests on Hawaiian culture. They also ensure the hotel is being respectful in the way it shares Hawaiian culture.

"These engagements with practitioners and artists instill a sense of place rather than just a destination,'" he said. "A visitor will be able to feel the emotion behind our history and what continues to shape the contemporary Hawaiian."

For example, during the Celebration of the Arts, guests are invited to an early morning E ala E and Hiuwai Ceremony, where they can take a quiet dip in the ocean as practitioners chant to the rising sun. This introspective experience offers guests a glimpse into an ancient Hawaiian tradition that's not often advertised to tourists in the same way that surfing lessons might be.

Geotagging social media posts can wreak havoc on natural resources and cause overcrowding. Leave locations off your posts — or better yet, keep your phone in your hotel room.

A woman on a blue surfboard surfing on a wave in Hawaii
I like to post pictures and videos when I surf in Hawaii, but I leave the exact location off of my post.Kathleen Wong

With edited and filtered photos, social media is understandably the main source of #travelspo for many people.

Because let's face it, we do want to show off the cool activities and places we experience. But when you post a picture of a place that's off the beaten path, that additional exposure could lead to it becoming so overcrowded that not even locals can enjoy it anymore.

For example, about 10 years ago, I used to hang out in gorgeous tide pools at the bottom of a remote hike. When Instagram became popular around the same time, so did those tide pools. Now, it's always so crowded that I don't bother to go anymore.

So while I still use social media, I no longer share the location of my activities. Whenever I post a surfing video or pretty hike onto Instagram, I avoid geo tagging the specific place or giving away the name. If a friend personally asks me, I'll tell them, because I want them to have an enjoyable time, but I try my best to remember the widespread impact social media can have.

You might also consider just putting your phone away and keeping that special discovery for your mental memory.

Spend your money wisely in Hawaii, and whenever possible, choose local businesses to support.

A woman standing under a shop's hanging sign.
I always support local businesses when dining or shopping on any Hawaiian island.Kathleen Wong

When you buy local, you're investing in local people and helping to keep our economy vibrant.

Choose farm-to-table restaurants or mom and pop eateries over chain restaurants, where the profits don't stay within the community.

Book excursions with locally-owned businesses to see how local farmers cultivate the land and feed the state, like ones hosted by Island Cruzin Hawaii.

Instead of mass-produced souvenirs, buy gifts made by local artisans for your loved ones back home because it allows the vendors to continue to preserve their culture and craft. I like stopping by Honolulu stores like MORI by Art +Flea and Na Mea, or other locally-owned boutiques to find unique items.

Better yet, choose businesses owned by Native Hawaiians. Hawaii's Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce and the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association partnered together to create Kuhikuhi.com, a directory listing Native Hawaiian-owned businesses from tours to food.

Supporting local businesses makes your purchase more meaningful. You can have a conversation with a local artisan who shapes koa wood by hand rather than just grabbing something off a shelf in a store.

 

Start one-on-one conversations with as many locals as possible for insight, recommendations, and the most authentic vacation possible.

A man sitting on a stump talking to a group surrounded by trees and a field.
When you speak to local people, you can hear stories, get deeper insight on what Hawaii is all about, and learn the best recommendations and travel tips.The Mo’olelo Group

Maui-born Kainoa Horcajo is the principal owner of the Mo'olelo Group, a "cultural and communications firm" that promotes Native Hawaiian businesses and organizations to visitors and locals. Horcajo encourages people to spark conversations with as many locals as possible, whether that's your server at lunch or the worker at the hotel front desk.

"A lot of people think because they come to a place and they looked on Instagram and the internet, that they have permission to do things and have an understanding of what the place is," he said. "But those things don't ever function as a real host. The best way to have a real experience is to have one-on-one conversations with local people."

When you foster relationships with local people, you can hear their stories and get deeper insight on what Hawaii is all about. You can learn about places that are overrun that you should avoid, or recommendations for local businesses to support. Instead of ending up at tourist traps, a local can tell you what shave ice spot they grew up eating at, or where to get the best poke bowl. That's about as real of an experience as you can get, in my opinion.

Instead of spending all your vacation by the beach, consider giving back to Hawaii through volunteer opportunities.

A group of people in a field with a tent on a cloudy day
Volunteering on vacation with an organization like Maui Cultural Lands enables you to directly benefit the place you are visiting.Kathleen Wong

Choosing to volunteer while traveling doesn't mean trading vacation for work. Rather, it will have you side-by-side with locals to directly benefit the place you are visiting.

Edwin "Ekolu" Lindsey III is president of the nonprofit Maui Cultural Lands. Every Saturday, the public is welcome to join Maui Cultural Lands and take care of the Honokowai Valley on Maui through planting native plants with the goal of educating people on why these resources should be protected. Many who join are tourists, and Lindsey says they come from all around the world.

"These travelers want something more in-depth," Lindsey said. "They want to see a Hawaii outside of tourism spots — they want something more intimate. If you come humble and respectful, as well as ready to learn and give back, the doors will open wide for you here."

Last month on Maui, I did something similar with the nonprofit Puu Kukui Watershed Preserve. On a rainy Saturday morning, we hiked up a hill to plant native species like koa trees at the state's largest private nature preserve with our hands. When the koa trees grow large, they can be shaped into canoes, which the Native Hawaiians historically steered to other islands. By the end of the morning, I felt connected to the island in a way that I had yet to feel before.

Curious visitors can explore additional volunteer opportunities with local nonprofits like Travel2Change or Go Hawaii.

 

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