Hawaii is undeniably a popular vocation destination, but is it truly overrated or is it the impact of over-tourism that is dampening the unique mystique of this beautiful archipelago?
Sofia is a sustainable travel writer currently exploring Indonesia. She loves finding local gems and uncharted spots.
Hawaii, a veritable tropical Island nestled in the Pacific Ocean, has long been a popular tourist destination and a subject of enamored fascination for travelers. Despite its pristine beaches, breathtaking waterfalls, and stunning vistas earning it a reputation as a dream come true, the reality of the Aloha State is not without flaws, and there are valid reasons to argue that Hawaii is overrated.
So, while it may be tempting to idealize the idyllic beauty of the archipelago, it is important to acknowledge these flaws and the drawbacks that have prompted visitors past and present to throw stones of critique at Hawaii.
But fundamentally, the question is not why Hawaii is overrated, but rather, whether the radical symptom it is now facing – chronic over-tourism – could lead to it being deemed as such in the future, and more importantly suffer irreparable damage to its environment and ecosystem.
Photo: Nikita M production/Shutterstock
The issue of over-tourism in Hawaii has been the subject of much debate in recent years, with both locals and authorities expressing concerns over the influx of visitors. The Mayor of Maui has even called for airlines to reduce the number of flights to the islands.
Statistics reveal the extent of the problem, with approximately one in every eight people state-wide now being tourists. On Oahu, more than one in ten people are visitors, while on the Big Island, it’s about one in seven. The numbers are even more significant on Kauai and Maui, where over one in four people are believed to be tourists.
According to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report, Oahu residents spend approximately 64 hours a year driving in traffic, with Honolulu ranking sixth in terms of highest traffic congestion, alongside cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. A troubling figure for a State that prides itself on being a national leader in environmental protection.
The impact of mass tourism on the quality of life for native Hawaiians is even more significant. According to the Hawaii State Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, the average daily rate for a hotel room in the State was $272 in 2019, compared to the US national average of $131, making it all but impossible for locals to find affordable housing owing strong demand from tourists. The high cost of living has also seen the cost of basic goods like food and energy, increase by over 30% compared to the mainland.
Photo: Alberto Loyo/Shutterstock
Economic disparity on the Islands has continued to widen as a result, deteriorating what already is a vicious cycle of Hawaiians losing out while foreign businesses thrive. For many locals, their employment options are limited to working in construction to build resorts, the military, or at major hotel corporations.
Even then, the hospitality industry in Hawaii has been found to offer inadequate compensation to its native Hawaiian employees, such as dancers, waiters, and singers proportionate to the high cost of living on the Islands.
Tourism, despite drawing large numbers of visitors annually, is thus regarded as a low-wage sector that consistently generates low-income jobs. Consequently, more native Hawaiians are being forced every year to migrate from their homeland due to financial constraints.
With the average single-family home price on Oahu now at $795,000, which is simply unaffordable for most locals, this migration trend to cheaper destinations on the mainland is only set to grow, and Hawaiians that remain on the Islands will increasingly find themselves either homeless or displaced in their own land.
While there have been calls to increase the costs for visiting tourists to tackle this issue, this approach does not necessarily benefit Hawaiians. Instead, major tourist corporations, such as hotels and resorts, stand to benefit the most.
It is not just native Hawaiians suffering from over-tourism on the Island State but the environment as well, and the effect is clear to see with authorities now being forced to limit freshwater supply usage in some places following the depletion of local water sources, as well as a notable upsurge in wastes, air pollution, and litters.
Photo: Tropic Dreams/Shutterstock
Because of its isolation, Hawaii possesses a delicate ecology in which most wildlife lack resistance to outside elements as evidenced by research from Western Michigan University which found that “Hawaii has only 0.2% of the nation’s land, but 72.1% of its extinctions and 27% of its rare or endangered species.” Despite this, major resort constructions have indiscriminately disrupted the living conditions of the islands’ wildlife.
For instance, the massive Waikoloa Beach resort on the Big Island destroyed 70% of the anchialine ponds during construction, which were home to unique shrimp that exist nowhere else in the world. The ponds also served as resting stations for rare migrating birds that are now nowhere to be found.
The desecration of native Hawaiian culture is another victim of over-tourism on the Islands. Many tourists participate in activities such as makeshift lu’aus featuring roasted pig and hula dancers.
However, in the hotel version of the hula dance, the true essence of its eroticism, which embodies the energy of the life force present in the earth and its people, has been stripped away.
Instead, the athleticism and sexualization are amplified for entertainment and profit, rather than a genuine celebration of Hawaiian culture, humanity, and the divine nature of the land.
Overtourism has deformed the culture so much that many young Hawaiians now grow up thinking that the purpose of hula dancing is solely to entertain tourists. This is a prevalent image in tourist literature, which suggests that everything in Hawaii, including the land, the people, and even their identity as natives, can be acquired for a price.
The irony in all of this is that it is not the tourists per se that are doing the most damage; it is those in power of the industry who have not set boundaries on tourism nor have they given back to the locals of Hawaii.
Educating tourists to be respectful of the land and people may help to some extent, but it is by no means the panacea to this deep-rooted issue. Other popular tourist hotspots such as Spain and Iceland have implemented some solutions to their own over-tourism problem which authorities in Hawaii could learn from. Taking those countries’ approaches, Hawaii should consider implementing a tax on tour operators to make it more expensive for tourists to visit.
But critically, just as Barcelona has done, taxes should be imposed on hotels, apartment shares, and cruise ships. There should be more legislative efforts to make visiting Hawaii more expensive, which would replace mass tourism with a higher-spending and more respectful visitation. By implementing these solutions, Hawaii can tackle the issue of over-tourism and create a more sustainable tourism industry that respects and benefits the local communities and their culture.
Photo: Fominaya Photo/Shutterstock
Hawaii is still a magical place, chock full of life-changing experiences, mind-altering perspectives, and sunsets to swoon over. But the Islands’ chronic over-tourism has brought significant environmental and social damage, worsened the quality of life for locals, and caricatured the natives’ cultural identity for the paradisiacal entertainment of tourists. From Hanauma Bay and the road to Hana, to North Shore Kauai, the impact of over-tourism is present and growing.
However, there is still hope for a new sustainable travel paradigm, with the Aloha spirit at its core, that could benefit Hawaii’s environment and ecosystem while preserving its unique culture and community.
Hawaii has the potential to lead the world in this new paradigm, promoting a more responsible approach to tourism that prioritizes sustainability, respect for local culture and customs, and equitable distribution of profits. By doing so, Hawaii can protect its natural and cultural heritage while providing a model for others to follow.
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