By: Evelyn Amparo Edited by: Ashlyn Bi August 30, 2023
When people first think of Hawaii, they might think of the beautiful beaches, grass skirts, coconuts, and floral-print shirts. Hawaii is known for its natural beauty, and tourism to the islands for viewing these wonders has been popular since the 1800s when American sailors and businessmen would often travel to the islands for work and leisure. The first hotel in Hawaii was built in 1901, 58 years before Hawaii would officially join the United States and become the 50th state of the nation. While modern culture has normalized vacationing to the beautiful islands during the summertime, it is necessary to note the harmful effects of non-native influences infiltrating the history and culture of the islands of Hawaii.
American influence in Hawaii dates back to the nineteenth century when Hawaii was slowly becoming a crucial agricultural power, especially with sugar. These new opportunities drew the attention of many powerful countries, including the United States. The United States made trade agreements with the Hawaiian monarchy to export sugar to America in exchange for other imported goods, such as food, clothing, and money. In 1887, the
establishment of Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu was part of a new Hawaiian constitution, and relations between Hawaii and the United States were relatively peaceful until 1893. Pearl Harbor was a naval base created to refuel and resupply ships traveling to Asia. Considering the United States was entering the “imperialism race” to become a global power, Pearl Harbor became pivotal as a connection to Asia, one of the greatest places to hold power. With Hawaii being located almost halfway between the United States and Asia, it seemed to be the perfect location to build Pearl Harbor. In January of 1893 with support from the United States, a coup was staged against Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii. By February, Hawaii was officially declared a U.S. protectorate. Despite President Grover Cleveland attempting to restore the monarchy, Congress refusde, and Sanford Dole, a powerful sugar plantation owner, appointed himself President of the Republic of Hawaii. In 1901, the construction of the Beaux Arts Moana Hotel in Waikiki Beach led to the advertisement of Hawaii in big cities to draw in tourism. Each year, tourism grew by the thousands up until the start of World War II.
With these spheres of American influence constantly on the islands, much Native Hawaiian or Kānaka Maoli culture has been adapted or erased. Native language, also known as 'ōlelo Hawai'i, was banned from schools in 1896 and nearly wiped from fluent use, with less than 1% of Native Hawaiians speaking the language. In addition, the appropriation of hula and dancing raised concerns in the past few years. Originally, hula was used as a religious practice to honor spirits and gods. However, it has become more of a spectacle and a costume, degrading authentic cultural practice. In the late 19th century, many hula dancers would perform their dances topless. However, this became incredibly sexualized by men in Western society, leading to many forms of hula ceasing to exist. Cultural appropriation, which is the “unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society”, has been a popular conversation in recent years. The primary difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is the level of respect one has when using or practicing an aspect of another culture. Appropriation is more exploitative and is often treated like a gimmick, whereas appreciation is learning about the culture and respecting the traditional practices. In Hawaiian culture, grass skirts and coconut bras frequently transform into mere jokes. Although holding tropically themed parties and appreciating aspects of the culture are acceptable, it is crucial to recognize the origins and potentially offensive effects of using their decorations or costumes. In addition to cultural practices, native land rights and the usage of protected land have been a rising issue with the growth of tourism and gentrification in Hawaii. Mauna Kea, a volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, has been frequently used as a viewpoint for stargazing and rare celestial sightings. In 2014, the Thirty Meter Telescope was to be built on the volcano to study space. However, many locals and Natives protested this since Mauna Kea is a spiritual place for Hawaiian gods and goddesses in their culture. The telescope prompted years of protests, petitions, and compromises until the year 2022: when a final bill proposed that there would be a board of trustees who would advise and limit the usage of the land on Mauna Kea, including two protected seats for Native Hawaiians to ensure proper representation. While this solution partially solves the issue for this piece of sacred land: countless beaches, mountains, and other areas of land are marketed as tourist attractions, disrespecting the original histories behind them. With millions of people traveling to Hawaii each year for business, vacations, or even looking for a place to live, much of the Hawaiian economy relies on tourism. While this may seem beneficial and paints the islands as wealthy, the growing capitalism only raises the standard cost of living for Native Hawaiians and people who have lived on the island for several generations due to immigration. Around 90% of goods on the island are imported from mainland America, causing high inflation on products that would otherwise be easily accessible, such as produce or dairy products. Thus, Hawaii has become the most expensive state in the country to live in, with a required yearly income of around $200,000 to live comfortably. However, according to the U.S. Census, the median household income in Honolulu, Hawaii, is only around $80,000. This disproportionate income versus expense causes many issues for Native Hawaiians, and leads to them leaving their homes to find cheaper housing on the mainland.
In early August of 2023, fires began to break out in the historic city of Lahaina on the island of Maui. While the cause of the fires is unknown, strong winds from Hurricane Dora have made matters drastically worse. Dozens of Maui residents are confirmed to be dead and acres of sacred land have burned completely. Some of the oldest markings of Christianity in Hawaii such as the 150-year-old Banyan tree as well as the 200-year-old Waiola Church have been destroyed by the wildfires. With smoke and flames becoming nearly impossible to see through, many residents opted to jump into the ocean to stay safe from the dangers on the land, abandoning their belongings completely. The devastation caused by these fires will scorn the island of Maui for decades to come, with no clear answer as to whether or not there will be any healing for the grief of losing so much of the island itself.
It is not necessary to stop tourism in Hawaii completely. Nevertheless, many locals face all sorts of issues because of the lack of attention to their problems. Hawaiian culture may be enjoyed and appreciated by foreigners, but researching before planning your next vacation ensures you are traveling respectfully. While travel to Hawaii may seem like a good idea with lowered prices for the foreseeable future, it is necessary to respect the victims of the fires on Maui and provide aid and time in any way possible. There are various platforms to support them through such as the Maui Mutual Aid Fund, which is accepting donations to provide to victims of the wildfires. While we can admire the beauty of the Aloha State, it is still necessary to know and be respectful of its history.