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Hawaii, Tourism, and Colonialism

Lucrative tourism is a colossal double-edged sword that graced the islands of Hawaii. It does bring in vast amounts of money for the state, with December of 2021 alone seeing $1.66 billion in revenue, but it faces ramifications on the environment and the people living there.


"Tourism normalizes and conceals the current dystopian reality experienced by many Kānaka Maoli (the Hawaiian language word for native Hawaiians) and the poor immigrant communities in Hawaii," said Kyle Kajihiro, an activist for native Hawaiians and a lecturer at the University of Hawaii, while speaking to CNN


The dystopian reality Kajihiro alludes to relates to the harsh realities of living in the state as it has the highest cost of living in the country in part due to needing to import 90% of its goods and also has the highest cost of housing in the country. CNN’s article points out that with land also being in incredibly high demand, this ensures that any native Hawaiians who wish to reclaim some of their lands will have an excruciating time doing so. 


With 6.7 million tourists who visited last year compared to 1.4 million residents, there is a constant ebb and flow of people going and leaving whose only perspective is that it is a vacation spot and not somewhere where people live. Carbon emissions emitted and the vast number of endangered species reflect this attitude.


A 2007 paper revolving around the negative impacts tourism has on Hawaii’s environment cited that 60% of native species on the islands faced endangerment while the number of hotel rooms between 1985 and 2010 was projected to double from 65 thousand to 132 thousand.


A valid concern to raise with citing this paper now is that it is over a decade old and likely does not reflect the Hawaii of today, but unfortunately, it does. The Washington Post published an article in 2016 that quoted conservationists as calling the island chain “the extinction capital of the world.”


About 1,225 animal and plant species had been on the endangered list in the United States when the article was published, and a whopping 481 were native to Hawaii. The centerpiece of the coverage was around the alala bird, the last of Hawaii’s native crow species to not be extinct. Only in recent weeks has there been talk about reintroducing it to the wild after the remaining members have lived in captivity for decades. 


Even the nene goose, the state bird, had to be saved from extinction as it had fewer than 100 members at its lowest, with the numbers recovering to just about 2,000 by 2014.


Not all of these effects are just due to tourism's effects on the island chain, but its effects are the ones most clearly visible today. Introductions to non-native and invasive species such as cats, cattle, pigs, and rats by Polynesians and Westerners have also played a substantial role in harming the Hawaiian environment. 


The alala is one such victim of this, as their numbers began dwindling in the 19th century due to increased farming and cattle ranching, plummeting to roughly 150 by the time the 1970s rolled around. 


Factors such as extreme amounts of tourism and the introduction of invasive species ultimately traced back to Hawaii’s history of colonialism. Travel website AFAR touched upon facts like how the military occupied 25% of O’ahu for bomb tests until 1990, and how the native human population went from 683,000 in 1778 to 24,000 in 1920.


The writer interviewed Kyle Kajihiro, the same activist and lecturer CNN had spoken to when they wrote their article on the harm tourism has done to the islands. At one point he said, “Hawai‘i is overdetermined by the tourist discourse.”


Admittedly, this strikes a nerve with me as I write an article that heavily involves Hawaii’s relationship with tourism, but he is not wrong. Opposite of that, the state is treated like a space for tourists to go and visit to unwind from their stresses. Meanwhile, the stresses of the people living there are not given a second thought, but that also does apply to how most people working service jobs are seen. 


The only perspective I can give is someone from the mainland who has never been to Hawaii, who has met people who have been, either because they grew up there or as a tourist. Getting the different perspectives of these people has been fascinating, even if they were never in-depth. Only a few stories here and there, like an aunt owning a farm or a quick visit to a resort for a week. 


Regardless, knowing what effects the tourism industry has on the local population and the history that led Hawaii to become what it is today is crucial for anyone who has thought about visiting. I myself have considered taking a vacation there before learning of the ramifications my escapist adventure would have had.


Even if what I know and shared here hardly scratches the surface, it is better to know that than to be blind to the history of the land millions breach for their amusement.

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