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After The Fire: Rethinking Tourism Impacts On Hawaii

In the aftermath of a deadly wildfire resulting in over 100 lives lost, Lahaina–a historical whaling town in Maui that was once the centerpiece of the Hawaiian monarchy–begins the difficult task of rebuilding. 

While the island grieves what was lost and begins to pick up the pieces, native Hawaiians are urging local governments and individuals to address the systemic issue of tourism that has shaped the indigenous communities’ way of life in Hawaii. While the future of Maui is uncertain following the fires, a revitalization of the effort to preserve and rebuild the culture, land, and history of Hawaii offers a hopeful future to native communities. 

In August, a series of high winds from Hurricane Dora, along with low humidity and a drought spell, put Hawaii under warning for conditions that foster wildfires. Shortly afterward, on the morning of August 8th, a devastating fire broke out and forced the evacuation of thousands, displacing the community and ripping through Lahaina. The land was a tinderbox set ablaze–hundreds of acres incinerated from the fires, and a multitude of churches, temples, and cultural sites that represented the history and culture of Hawaii were destroyed. Generations of native Hawaiians watched as their land was stripped from them again, with little to recollect. Lahaina’s 150-year-old Banyan tree, a generational symbol of prosperity and hope, was engulfed in flames as the town burned. 

Wildfires on the island, though not uncommon, have never reached such catastrophic levels in the past–but Maui has changed both economically and environmentally. Though the cause of the wildfire is considered unknown, both residents and local officials raised concerns regarding the increased impact of climate change, as what was once a wetland has been struggling with severe drought. Native plants are no longer able to retain nutrients that create a damp and humid environment, where wildfires struggle to spread as quickly. Coupled with the drought is the introduction of non-native plants brought by colonizers that are highly flammable. These concerns about climate change have been brought alongside claims that Hawaiian Electric, the operating company of Maui Electric, did not ensure that proper safety measures and emergency procedures were established ahead of the storm and risk of wildfire. Together, these factors brought about a condition in which the wildfires were able to prosper, devastating the land and the people.  

As the Banyan tree begins to sprout again and turn over a new leaf in the conversation of who owns Hawaii, the entirety of Lahaina faces the deadly consequences caused by destruction from the fires. The aftermath has spread roots of uncertainty all throughout the island, with natives struggling to conceptualize the loss and the local government pleading with visitors to reconsider their vacation plans. Hotels were converted to shelters for residents who were evacuated and displaced, with an estimated 46,000 individuals flying out of Maui on the day the fires broke out. Maui halted most visitors from entering, with many local Hawaiians stating that the island needs time to recover and grieve the lives and communities that were lost. The road to repair is lighting a spark in natives emboldened by the loss to regain control over the land. Maui’s wildfires and the devastation that impacted Lahaina are reigniting the conversation about the exploitative nature that Hawaii’s tourism industry has fostered.

Since the establishment of Hawaii as a state in 1959, the land has been used to support its tourism industry, which has grown exponentially. Since then, the impacts of the human footprint and climate change have in turn exploited its natural environment. Visitors to the island reach numbers in the millions every year. As hotels, resorts, and businesses owned by large-scale corporations continue to drive up housing prices and pay poor wages, residents have become unable to afford their homes and are forced to abandon their land, which is then often bought by billionaires like Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bezos. These issues didn’t arise overnight–they stem from the structured gentrification of Hawaii that financially and physically displaced the native population while portraying it as a way to economically benefit the island’s communities.

When Hawaii was harvested for its rich agricultural resources, particularly sugar, the island and its natives began to lose independence as a nation. The result was a drift towards a for-profit economy bolstered by white settlers that profited from colonialism enacted against native peoples and their land. After the overthrow of the monarchy and annexation of the island, the result was a series of political and economic leverages used against the native community, backed by powerful sugar lobbyists who were instrumental in taking control of the land. As indigenous communities were regarded with suspicion and tasked with proving loyalty to the United States during World War II, colonialism flourished and grew exponentially. The result was stripping away indigenous communities’ self-determination and capitalizing off the obstacles natives faced in order to develop and maintain Hawaii’s economic advantage through the tourism industry.

Maui, in particular, has been a hotspot for tourism–its economy relies on the tourism industry for more than 80% of its wealth, and resorts welcome as many as 8,000 individuals per day. Taxes and revenue from the hotel industry are fed right back to supporting the expanding service industry. This creates a repetitive and vicious cycle of consumption culture, where the indigenous society is buried under the weight of tourism. Following the relaxation of pandemic restrictions, local infrastructure has suffered from the surge in visitors that heavily burden public services, including roads, businesses, and the natural landscape. Streets are closed because of overcrowding, natives face egregious fines for basic water consumption, and profit-driven pollution has compromised the environment.

Visitors often leave long-lasting impacts on the land through extreme water usage at hotels and luxury golf courses built by distant investors. Investment in Hawaii would be better aimed at environmental impact mitigation and housing solutions, such as the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s hope to reinvest 2.7 million dollars into the culture and community.

Decades of colonialism in partnership with tourism and over-development have marginalized and disregarded the indigenous communities in Maui, promoting an unethical economy that is detrimental to Hawaii’s future in the aftermath of the fires. As described by Kaniela Ing, a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian from Maui, “black, brown, and low-income communities. . . have contributed the least to climate change, but have suffered the most”. As demonstrated by this longstanding exploitation, the balance between the ethical enjoyment of Hawaii and the preservation of its history has become increasingly hard to manage. While Maui relies on its tourism infrastructure and the use of natural resources to generate revenue, native Hawaiians are begging for the island to shift in a direction Ing describes as “redefining what Hawaii stands for”.

Visiting Hawaii should be more than just an aesthetic experience treated like a “paradise” when the people and communities do not share these benefits. A continuous effort has been made to educate tourists and individuals about the tangible impacts of the tourism industry. Groups like DeTours have been operating since 2004, allowing visitors to tour the island through the perspective of local Hawaiians and their communities. The group is part of a larger movement in acknowledging the turbulent relationship between the tourism industry and Hawaii, allowing people to visit old neighborhoods, the Hawaiian royal residence, and Pearl Harbor. By visiting these locations, people are able to understand the larger context of historical colonialism and its abuses while learning about the significance of their impact as tourists. 

Repeated exploitation has fostered a reliance on tourism throughout the island. Hawaiian businesses, employment opportunities, housing, and infrastructure are all aimed at the preservation of tourism. Lahaina and its community, in the days following the fires, have begun to imagine a life outside of the realm of an industry that has shackled Hawaii to its colonialist history. To some, the fires provided a wake-up call to the direction that non-native Hawaiian opportunists have been running in–favoring the island’s profit over its people.

Investors and the service industry should no longer be building the framework of Hawaii. Rather than investing in golf courses, resorts, and attractions that ruin the land and foster consumption culture, we should encourage a new sense of leadership and drive in the restoration of Maui. Despite the imminent need for resident housing, Hawaii continues to favor short-term rentals designed for vacation-goers. The burden of this is placed entirely on natives, who spend an average of 23 years waiting for housing through the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. As a result, natives are twice as likely to be homeless, forcing many to leave the state and abandon their land. Housing should be developed for long-term residents and have immediate results for locals whose land has been taken from them. The wildlife and island should be protected and preserved, with indigenous communities at the forefront of this conversation, receiving help and support from both federal and local governments. The same concerns were raised when the development of a telescope on Mauna Kea sparked criticism from local Hawaiians. Through advocacy and engagement with organizations like the Hawaii Land Trust (HILT), individuals and communities are able to participate in reducing the impact of climate change through wildlife conservation, coastline protection, and outreach in educating people about the land. Since the beginning of HILT, the organization has conserved thousands of acres of land, all through their volunteer program which is aimed at engaging and assisting the native population in their effort to reclaim land. Community-oriented spaces and projects like HILT promote the construction of public services and preserve culture, allowing Maui to be restored to what it once was before–a home. 

As the island begins to heal and the leaves of the sacred Banyan tree flush out the ash created through decades of occupation and colonialism, now more than ever individuals should acknowledge and educate themselves on the impact that tourism has had on Hawaii.

There’s hope that in the aftermath of the fires, tourists and locals will embrace collective responsibility. After the detrimental effects of an unethical economy, Hawaii is beginning to break free from historical exploitation, sprouting hope and opportunity for the natives. A future in which Hawaii is constructed by indigenous culture and history can uproot the deep-seated issues of colonialism that have followed the natives and their land, allowing indigenous communities to grow and flourish after decades of economic and social suffocation caused by tourism. It’s evident that tourism has negatively impacted Hawaii both socially and environmentally, and the fires are a pivotal point in restoring and reclaiming native lands. While the future of Maui is uncertain following the fires, a revitalization of the effort to preserve and rebuild the culture, land, and history of Hawaii offers a hopeful future to native communities.

Featured Image Source: CNN

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