Chapter I: Chained and Carved

Trouble in Paradise: The Effects of Tourism on the Culture of the Hawaiian Islands

Darragh Clayton

The Hawaiian Islands are a diverse archipelago full of various cultures and traditions. It is this, combined with its tropical beaches and luscious landscapes, that has made Hawaii such a popular tourist destination. In fact, it receives over seven million visitors annually and the tourism industry contributes 12 billion dollars to the economy each year (Agrusa et al., 2010). Although this may seem like an advantage for Hawaii, the influx of tourists actually has several negative effects on both the land and its residents. With that many visitors annually, the islands are forced to build infrastructure to house them, which means damaging the natural environment and wildlife. The tourism industry also affects the life of Hawaiian residents because their country is put on display and their culture is used as a marketing tool. With less opportunities and less space for their traditions, the native population is forced to forget their important roots and adjust to living in a highly-visited area. Sadly, this has caused the disappearance of a large portion of native Hawaiians, along with their language and traditions. Due to the fact that Hawaii is an archipelago, its remote islands are especially susceptible to the effects of the state’s industries. However, traveling to Hawaii does not have to be so harmful. If we can shift the tourism industry to focus on authentic experiences that honour the beautiful Hawaiian culture—rather than exploit it—visitors can still enjoy these islands without actively damaging them.


Native Hawaiian Culture

Hawaiian culture is unique, intricate, and heavily connected to nature. It is made up largely of traditional clothing, storytelling, legends, music, dance, and the native language (Emerson, 2000). There are certain stereotypical aspects of it that many are familiar with, but the reality is that there is much more to the culture of Hawaii than what we perceive. In fact, there are more ethnic and cultural groups located in Hawaii than any other state (Agrusa et al., 2010). Unfortunately, their culture is exploited and used as a symbol to attract visitors. For example, the popular aloha slogan is derived from the early Polynesian language and literally means “breath of life” or “love,” but it signifies much more than that. For Hawaiians, aloha is a way of living with positive energy, peace, and connection to one another (Trask, 1991). Language is a large part of Hawaiian culture, as are oral traditions and stories passed down through generations (Schutz, 1994). Mele, or “vocal music” is also shared between cultures and generations throughout history (McDermott, 1980). However, it has been claimed and transformed by Western cultures to satisfy their view of Hawaii and what it means, which is why this word is so often a tagline to symbolize a tropical escape and a worry-free mindset. In the year 1900, when Hawaii became a part of the United States, the American-imposed government banned the Hawaiian language. This caused the near-extinction of their language altogether, since schools and all government operations were conducted in English. Fortunately, we are seeing the slow rise of the native language once again, although much fewer people speak it now (Trask, 1991).

Family is extremely important to the native culture, which is the meaning of their word ohana. Although it loosely translates as family, it encompasses a greater meaning to the native people. Ohana is “a group of closely and distantly-related people who share nearly everything, from land and food to children and status” (Trask, 1991). This avoids poverty by ensuring all resources are shared equally. Hawaiians also live as one with their land, honouring it and making sure to only harvest as much as they need while still keeping the natural world healthy. They are careful not to overexploit, and they share all foods that are harvested.

Another aspect of Hawaiian culture is dance, including the familiarized ancient hula kahiko. Hawaiian dance is considered one of the finest Polynesian art forms, and it was traditional to have dance competitions lasting three or four days (Trask, 1991). Resorts often host white-washed luaus, which make guests feel like they are being integrated into a part of authentic culture but have no respect or appreciation of native Hawaiians. This is another example of culture being “sold” to draw in tourists who want to become “Hawaiians at heart.”  It is crucial to understand the true meanings of the native Hawaiian culture because these aspects are easily lost and forgotten over the years.


The Effects of Modern Tourism

While tourism can certainly be a key factor for a successful economy, it can also be a downfall. Beginning just after World War II, when airplane flights finally connected the islands, people started visiting in high capacities (Agrusa et al., 2010). In fact, during the 1950s, there was a 22% annual increase in the number of tourists visiting the islands (Farrell, 1982). However, the sheer amount of tourism in Hawaii has surpassed a sustainable level and is causing more harm than good to the islands. Unfortunately, the native population has only been decreasing since the first English missionaries arrived in 1820, and tourists currently outnumber residents by 6 to 1, and native Hawaiians by 30:1 (Schmitt, 1968; Trask, 1991). The tourism industry is taking over the islands, having widespread impacts.

Firstly, the tourism industry greatly affects the native residents of Hawaii. With nature being such an integral part of their culture and traditions, it is more difficult for them to practice them when their land is being torn up to build hotels, pools, and shopping malls. These buildings are being put up over acres of “taro land,” where crops have fed native Hawaiians for thousands of years (Trask, 1991). Growing and harvesting food is a significant part of the native culture, as is working closely with the land to live sustainably. The land is being torn up in order to accommodate the millions of annual tourists, and in turn, traditional burial sites and heiau (temples) are being destroyed (Trask, 1991). With less space to keep their culture alive, native Hawaiians are being forced to suppress aspects of their traditional lifestyles (Darowski et al., 2006). As Darowski (2006) states in his article on the negative impacts of tourism in Hawaii, “almost every major resort development has been on some culturally significant site”. One example of this is the Keoneloa development site in Kauai. Here, 22 acres of traditional burial grounds were relocated to just one acre of property. Rather than being respected, this site was then used as a feature to draw tourists into the resort. This is one of countless instances where Hawaiian culture has been exploited in order to sell vacations with no consideration of the native population.

The tourism industry does not only affect individuals native to Hawaii, but the wildlife too, serving as a clear example of ecodynamics, where the environment cannot be detached from human behaviour and activities (Kirch, 2007). The state’s luscious landscape makes it home to many of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet; however, 60% of plant and animal species in Hawaii are endangered (Darowski et al., 2006). This is largely to do with deforestation and habitat loss due to the construction of infrastructure for tourists. Increased pollution, especially in popular areas like beaches and hiking trails, causes further harm to animals as well as local residents. Since fishing is a key part of native Hawaiian culture, pollution in the seas causing decline in fish population reduces their ability to practice cultural activities (Titcomb, 1972). Interacting with marine species in their natural habitats is also a popular tourist attraction and one that can be harmful to ecosystems. This can include dolphin viewings and swims, snorkel and dive tours, whale watching, charter fishing, and other marine activities. The dolphin swim business alone in Hawaii made $102 million in 2013, and there was an average of 14, 235 boat trips off Kailua-Kona each year (Wiener et al., 2010). These marine excursions place stress on the animals, who have tour boats and crowds disrupting their natural habitats. Additionally, many boat operators and clients have been seen conducting harmful practices like dumping food scraps, feeding wild fish, trampling coral, and harassing marine life (Wiener & Needham, 2009). As a result of these tourist-related activities, more plants and animal species are endangered or extinct in Hawaii than anywhere else in the United States (Trask, 1991).


A Shift Towards Sustainable Tourism

Evidently, it would be catastrophic to halt tourism to Hawaii altogether, since it is their top industry and a crucial part of their economy. Rather, there are ways to modify the tourism industry so it becomes more sustainable and respectful towards Hawaiian culture. A recent trend of “eco-tourism” is emerging: “’Nature and culture-based tourism that is ecologically sustainable and supports the well being of local communities” (Darowski et al., 2006). This would incorporate education about the land and how to ensure all activities are conducted with the environment in mind. Of course, to achieve this would require a massive transformation in the mainstream tourism industry, which may not be prepared for such a change. However, educated travellers are already placing pressure on the industry to create more sustainable travel options and experiences. Eventually, businesses will have to adapt to the new standards that tourists are looking for. This will require resorts and travel companies to learn about native Hawaiian culture, as well as collaborate with locals and residents of Hawaii in order to discover which current practices are harming them and adjust to a more respectful approach.

Another increasingly popular type of tourism is called “cultural tourism,” which refers to “a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s essential motivation is to learn, discover, experience and consume the tangible and intangible cultural attractions/products in a tourism destination” (Andrade et al., 2021). In this case, tourists would be visiting Hawaii to educate themselves on the native culture and traditions without harming any locals or land. Cultural tourism would incorporate truly authentic experiences, rather than the Western world’s versions of them.

Research has been done to determine whether or not tourists would be interested in experiencing travel and vacations this way, as well as whether or not they would pay more to ensure that their trip is ecologically and culturally sustainable. One study involved a questionnaire given to a random sample of 455 US residents above the age of 18 who had travelled on vacation on a plane in the last year (Andrade et al., 2021). These surveys included questions about what the participants picture when they think about Hawaii, the top reasons they would visit, and how important it is for them to understand and incorporate Hawaiian culture. According to one of the surveys, a total of 63.96% of participants had never visited Hawaii before, while 36.04% had been there. When asked to select the top three characteristics that came to mind when thinking of Hawaii, the top answer was beaches, followed by Hawaiian culture, outdoor activities, and cultural activities (Andrade et al., 2021). The next section asked about participants’ interest and knowledge of Hawaiian culture. When asked if they would be interested in tourism experiences led by native Hawaiians, the average of the answers was moderately high. Additionally, more than 50% of respondents claimed it is important for them to understand and respect Hawaiian culture when visiting Hawaii. Most people also agreed that it is the responsibility of the tourism industry to ensure that trips are not harmful to the environment or the local culture and communities (Andrade et al., 2021). Another study asked Hawaiian residents about how tourism affects them. The findings presented that most people agreed that the environment is more important than the economic benefits of the tourism industry, but that tourism does provide the state with many benefits, proving that there is interest in transforming Hawaiian tourism to incorporate a more authentic culture and respect for the environment (Liu & Var, 1986).



The public is becoming more aware of the harm that this level of tourism is causing to Hawaii. Deforestation and construction for tourism destroy sacred ecosystems and the habitats of thousands of wildlife species. Furthermore, a large tourist population reduces native Hawaiians’ ability to practice their own cultural traditions without stereotypes being used as a tagline to draw visitors to the islands. If not enough is done to allow the native culture to flourish, it will be completely forgotten in a few generations’ time. There is a balance that needs to be found between allowing Hawaiian residents to live freely and practice their cultures, and still offering visitors an unforgettable experience that will keep the tourism industry flourishing. As such, a complete reform of the tourism industry in Hawaii is necessary to ensure that no further damage is done to Hawaiian land, culture, or residents.


Works Cited 

Agrusa, Wendy, Joseph Lema, John Tanner, Tanya Host, and Jerome Agrusa. “Integrating sustainability and Hawaiian culture into the tourism experience of the Hawaiian Islands.” PASOS. Revista de Turismo y Patrimonio Cultural 8.2 (2010): 247-264.

Andrade, Gabriella, Holly Itoga, Cathrine Linnes, Jerome Agrusa, and Joseph Lema. “The Economic Sustainability of Culture in Hawai’i: Tourists’ Willingness to Pay for Hawaiian Cultural Experiences.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 3 Sept. 2021.

Darowski, Lukasz, Jordan Strilchuk, Jason Sorochuk, and Casey Provost. “Negative Impact of Tourism on Hawaii Natives and Environment”. Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal. 2006. Vol. 1, No. 2.

Emerson, Nathaniel B. “Pele and Hiiaka: A Myth from Hawaii.” Charles E. Tuttle Company Inc, 2000.

Farrell, Bryan H. “Hawaii, the Legend that Sells.” University of Hawaii Press, 1982.

Kirch, Patrick V. “Hawaii as a model system for Ecodynamics.” American Anthropologist, March 2007.

Liu, Juanita C. and Var, Turgar. “Resident attitudes towards tourism impacts in Hawaii.” Annals of Tourism Research, 1986. vol. 13, no. 2.

McDermott, John F, Wen-Shing Tseng,  and Thomas W. Maretzki. “People and Cultures of Hawaii: A Psychocultural Profile.” John A. Burns School of Medicine and University of Hawaii Press, 1980.

Schmitt, Robert C. “Demographic Statistics of Hawaii.” University of Hawaii Press, 1968.

Schutz, Albert J. “The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies.” University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Titcomb, Margaret. “Native Use of Fish in Hawaii.” University of Hawaii Press, 1972. Vol. 2.

Trask, Haunani-Kay. “Lovely Hula Lands: Corporate Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture. ” 1991. PDF.

Wiener, Carlie S., and Mark D. Needham. “Hawaii’s real life marine park: interpretation and impacts of commercial marine tourism in the Hawaiian Islands.” Current Issues in Tourism 12.5-6 (2009): 489-504.

Wiener, Carlie, Lars Bedjer, David Johnston, Leesa Fawcett, and Paul Wilkinson. “Cashing in on Spinners: Revenue Estimates of Wild Dolphin-Swim Tourism in the Hawaiian Islands.” Frontiers, December 2010.

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