Hawaii's tourism industry is a double-edged sword. Photo: Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

When a massive wildfire tore through Maui five months ago, it left death and devastation in its wake, claiming more than 100 lives. It also exposed longstanding inequalities and anger surrounding Hawaii’s status as a vacation and second-home destination for the wealthy (Jeff Bezos, who paid $78 million for a 14-acre Maui estate in 2021, was recently called out by Bloomberg regarding the $100 million he pledged to help rebuild after the fire. Nobody seems to know where the money went.) At the same time, Hawaii relies on tourism — it accounts for roughly one-fifth of the state’s economy, and about 15% of its population works in the sector. That said, the majority of Hawaiians don’t want tourists to stop coming — instead, they want them to be more intentional and responsible when they do visit. This week, The Escape Home spoke with two native Hawaiians — cultural practitioner Elijah Kalā McShane and Doctor Kiona, owner of ethical travel company Reroot — for tips on how to visit Hawaii responsibly. 

Do your research and learn about Hawaii’s history and culture before you visit. “Visitors can allow the cultural values of our people to guide not only their vacation, but their lives in a positive way,” McShane says. “When visitors have this awareness, they’re inherently more respectful to Hawaii. To get started, he recommends reading “Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen” by Queen Liliuokalani.

When choosing accommodations, ask these four questions. When booking accommodations for tours, Doctor Kiona always asks if the employees are unionized, what percentage of them are born-and-raised Hawaiians, if there are native Hawaiians in management and if property is owned by a family versus a corporation. Rarely, she says, will you find an accommodation that checks all of the boxes, but something is better than nothing. If you do stay at a resort, Doctor Kiona and McShane recommend seeking authentic cultural experiences outside of it. Photo: Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

If you do stay at a resort, Doctor Kiona and McShane recommend seeking authentic cultural experiences outside of it. Photo: Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Leave your resort. Even if you decide to stay at an resort a la White Lotus (the show was actually filmed at a Four Seasons in Maui, where rooms range from about $1,300 to $8,000 per night), you should still make an effort to spend time outside the gates, especially if you’re interested in participating in a cultural activating. “If you want to do a luau, that’s in-house. If you want to take a hula class that’s in-house. if you want to take lei making that’s in-house. And a lot of those things are offered for free. But often they are not being led by Native Hawaiians,” Doctor Kiona says. “It’s not really an authentic experience. It’s purely for tourism.”

Spend your money at native Hawaiian-owned businesses. Speaking of authentic experiences, the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce and the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association created this directory of Native Hawaiian-owned businesses and services.

Volunteer. “Volunteering will help you experience and connect with Hawaii on a deeper level, and costs you nothing,” says McShane. You can easily spend a few hours with an organization like 808 Cleanups, which he recommends, or use this voluntourism guide from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

And most importantly, connect with the locals. “There are so many Native Hawaiians willing and wanting to share their culture and to connect with them I think is the only way that you can ethically travel to Hawaii,” said Doctor Kiona. “Otherwise, you’re actively contributing to the destruction of the environment, communities, people and so on.

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