Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

The Hawaiian islands have become a popular destination for vacation now that travel has become more frequent, but it has left Native Hawaiians to question what the future of tourism looks like in the state.

In 2019, a year before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Hawaiian islands reported a record 10.4 million visitors. Then COVID happened, and strict measures were implemented to visit the state.

With less visitors, Native Hawaiians were reporting clear ocean waters instead of murky waters filled with sunscreen. They saw bare hiking trails and beaches and even fish and dolphins in places they hadn’t seen in a long time.

Now that the islands are seeing a large influx of visitors due to less strict travel restrictions, and airlines and hotels who were selling flights and accommodations for low-costs, many of the COVID observations have changed.

The number of visitors, which averages more than 32,000 people daily, has created an issue of contention for the state whose budget relies heavily on tourism — and it’s left some Native Hawaiians frustrated, saying their quality of life has been lessened.

On social media, Native Hawaiians, like Daniel Aipa, have politely urged tourists not to visit their islands until it is completely safe again.

Aipa says his family sacrificed a lot to follow protocols to stay safe from the coronavirus, citing that he and his wife homeschooled their children and even had to shut down their business. He says it is common now to see tourists not wearing masks, overcrowded beaches and state parks. He frequently sees trash and traffic too.

“We were making sure that we were doing whatever we could in order to get back to our normal way of living but yet we see everybody else disregarding that. It’s frustrating,” Aipa said.

Another important issue for Aipa is safety. His brother and other family members are firefighters and lifeguards and he estimates that “one day they had almost 200 rescues in the ocean because people weren’t paying attention,” Aipa said.

The frustration for Aipa grew to the point where he decided he needed to say something. He created an infographic — which he named “to the tourist who needs to hear this” — and posted it to Instagram. It includes slides urging tourists to be respectful of sacred sites and to follow hiking trails or signs. It was shared thousands of times on social media platforms.

Aipa isn’t alone in the behavior he sees.

On social media, people are posting videos of individuals hopping over clearly marked rails to take better photos and others collecting lava rocks from beaches.

A woman visiting from Louisiana was recently seen illegally touching an endangered monk seal on the island of Kauai. That behavior is a felony under state and federal law and can include a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

On Thursday, Hawai’i Gov. David Ige rebuked the woman’s behavior by tweeting: “I want to be clear that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable.”

After the video went viral on social media, the woman and her husband told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that they were “deeply sorry.”

The state has been spurred to take action. It is navigating the return of tourists by launching educational campaigns to urge visitors to travel mindfully and safely, creating shuttle services so that less visitors rent cars, and even creating online reservation systems where people can sign up to go to the beach or on a hike.

The Hawai’i Tourism Authority is the state agency tasked with managing tourism and told Indian Country Today it hears the concerns from local residents.

“We hear you, and now it’s important that we do something about it,” said Kalani Ka'ana'ana, Native Hawaiian, who serves as Chief Brand Officer of the agency.

The tourism authority has done a survey of Hawai’i residents for the last 30 years in order to gauge the sentiment of tourism. Ka’ana’ana says they’ve seen a decrease in support for tourism from residents, “and that concerns us.”

He says the agency is now focused on tackling this issue to ensure Hawai’i residents can maintain their quality of life while still attracting tourists. He says he is in a position to impact change after recently being hired for the position, and is committed to doing so for his community.

Others, like Native Hawaiian community organizer Kaniela Ing, say part of the problem is that the state economy relies on tourism.

“The people who live and work here have to be poorer than the people who play here in order for the system to work,” Ing said.

Earlier this month, Ing, a former state legislator, took to social media to address another factor of overtourism: water supply.

He shared screenshots showing that upcountry residents on the island of Maui are prohibited from watering their lawns, washing their vehicles, irrigating or any other non-essential activities. A violation of these restrictions will cost $500.

“Water is actually being diverted to keep the pools filled and make sure the tourists are happy, when local residents can’t even water their lawns or wash their cars,” Ing said.

“It's a really egregious example that shows where our priorities are, how local people are being treated like second-class citizens and how government values tourists more. And people are fed up.”

Ing’s tweet was shared more than 53,000 times, and liked on Instagram more than 11,000 times.

Elected officials are struggling to address the visitors too. In early July, the mayor of Mayor County Michael Victorino asked airlines to pause on bringing tourists to the island.

“We don’t have the authority to say stop, but we are asking the powers to be to help us,” Victorino said at a news conference.

Currently, Hawai’i is the only state in the country that hasn’t fully reopened. The governor says he doesn’t plan on lifting restrictions until 70 percent of the state’s population is vaccinated. It is currently at 58.9 percent.

Earlier this month, lawmakers overrode a state bill that proposed an overhaul of how the state funds the Hawai’i Tourism Authority.

The proposed bill would stop funding the tourism agency with money raised by the transient accommodations tax on hotel stays and other short-term rentals. Instead, lawmakers intend to pay for the agency with money from the general fund, though for the current fiscal year they appropriated federal coronavirus relief funds.

The House voted 38 in favor of overriding, with eight against and four members excused. The Senate voted 17 in favor of overriding and eight against.

There are other proposed solutions, including increasing entrance and parking fees for state parks and beaches.

Currently, out-of-state visitors at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on the island of Oahu have to pay $25, up from $12. Entry is free for residents with valid identification, children 12 or younger regardless of residency and active-duty military members.

Parking is $1 per vehicle for locals and $4 per vehicle for tourists. The proceeds from the fees go to maintenance, education and research, city officials say.

On the island of Kauai, officials are using coronavirus relief money to study parking at crowded beach parks, with a possibility of imposing fees for parking in the future. The state department of parks and recreation is tasked with conducting the study but the findings would need council approval to enact any programs in the future.

Before more potential action is spurred, Native Hawaiians say they will continue the conversation of advocating for themselves and their homelands.

“What gives me hope is that it feels like we're at a tipping point where sensible people are winning, and the industry is realizing that they need to change,” Ing said.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report