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Americans are flocking to Hawaii, but locals don't want tourists visiting now - and some wish they'd stop altogether

INSIDER logo INSIDER 4/10/2021 mhumphries@businessinsider.com (Monica Humphries)
a sign in front of a palm tree: With beachgoers in the background, yellow caution tape is wrapped across an area of Waikiki Beach. Marco Garcia/AP Photo © Marco Garcia/AP Photo With beachgoers in the background, yellow caution tape is wrapped across an area of Waikiki Beach. Marco Garcia/AP Photo
  • Hawaii is experiencing a surge in travel as visitors flock to the state's popular islands.
  • Many locals shared the message: "Don't come here in a pandemic."
  • Some Native Hawaiians hope tourists will permanently remove Hawaii from their bucket lists.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Throughout the summer months of 2020, Kawenaʻulaokalā Kapahua, a Native Hawaiian born in Kailua on the island of Oahu, would trek to Waikiki Beach for surfing.

It was the first time in years Kapahua had seen the popular tourist beach empty.

A few weeks ago, he showed up to the shore, but it was too crowded for surfing. The 23-year-old said it was "maddening" how many people were there - with most disregarding Hawaii's public safety restrictions.

"It looked like it did before the pandemic," the 23-year-old graduate student and community organizer told Insider. "But I could count the number of masks on one hand."

Kapahua's visible influx of tourists on the shores of Waikiki Beach represents the larger surge of tourists entering Hawaii.

From April 3 to April 8, more than 23,000 people arrived in Hawaii every day, according to state travel data. Arrivals peaked on Saturday, April 3, when nearly 29,000 people stepped foot onto one of Hawaii's eight major islands, approaching pre-pandemic tourism levels.

On Friday, the CDC announced fully vaccinated people can travel domestically. Although Hawaii hasn't adjusted its protocol for vaccinated travelers, the state is already seeing an increase in travelers.

Native Hawaiians told Insider they fear incoming travelers will cause coronavirus cases to rise and urged travelers not to visit during a pandemic.

Others emphasized deep-rooted issues in Hawaii's tourism industry, and they hope travelers will permanently remove Hawaii from their bucket list.

COVID has hit Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders hard

a group of people walking on a sandy beach: Storm chasing surfers and body boarders enjoy the waves before the pandemic in Honolulu, Hawaii. Kat Wade/Getty Images © Kat Wade/Getty Images Storm chasing surfers and body boarders enjoy the waves before the pandemic in Honolulu, Hawaii. Kat Wade/Getty Images

Camille Slagle has watched the coronavirus disproportionately affect her family, friends, and community.

Slagle, a Native Hawaiian from Kailua on Hawaii's Oahu island, has watched other Native Hawaiians fill essential jobs across the state. She says many in her community have been worried about spreading the virus at home, especially in houses filled with multiple generations.

"I'm terrified and frustrated for Native people," the 21-year-old told Insider.

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus, according to a study from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders account for 40% of the positive coronavirus cases on the islands, but they only make up 25% of Hawaii's population.

They're also some of the least vaccinated populations. As of March 16, 8.8% of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have received a COVID vaccine compared to 25.4% of Asians and 19.2% of Hawaii's white population, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

"It's actually terrifying since not everyone is vaccinated yet," Slagle said about the surge of tourists. "People are acting like the virus just doesn't exist anymore."

But the virus does still exist, and in parts of Hawaii, it's getting worse. Daily new case reports have doubled since late February, and Slagle said she fears CDC's announcement for vaccinated travelers will make things worse.

"Tourists can go home and have happy memories of their trip, but we are left to deal with the deaths, closed businesses, and environmental impacts they have left behind," Slagle said.

a group of people sitting at a crowded beach: Crowds gather for a lantern floating ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park in downtown Honolulu in 2018. JJM Photography/Shutterstock © JJM Photography/Shutterstock Crowds gather for a lantern floating ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park in downtown Honolulu in 2018. JJM Photography/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, tourism plays an enormous role in Hawaii's economy. In 2019, Hawaii welcomed more than 10 million visitors, and tourism became the state's largest source of private capital for Hawaii's economy.

Last October, Governor David Ige launched a pre-travel testing program to encourage travelers to visit. The program allowed visitors to skip the 14-day mandatory quarantine if they brought a negative coronavirus test. Around the same time, a temporary residency program, known as "Movers and Shakas," launched, and tourism companies enticed visitors with travel incentives and resort bubbles.

But the majority of Hawaii's residents didn't want to welcome back visitors, according to a survey published by the Hawaii Tourism Authority in November.

"My family and I are very frustrated," Slagle said. "I'm happy that some local businesses are able to benefit from the money that tourists are spending, but my motto will always be to prioritize people over profit."

About 65% of surveyed residents said they agreed strongly or somewhat strongly that "people from outside Hawaii should not be visiting right now," and 62% disagreed with the statement, "I am confident that state and county governments can safely re-open my island to visitors from outside the state of Hawaii."

Tippe Morlan, a Kama'aina, or local resident from Kapolei in Oahu, said no one she knows is happy about the influx of tourists.

Morlan attributed those feelings to tourists who behave poorly, whether that's by not wearing masks, breaking mandatory quarantines, or not social distancing.

"My perception of tourism in Hawaii is much more negative after seeing the way people have treated my home, simply because it is a domestic beach destination," the travel blogger told Insider in an email.

Slagle said that marketing Hawaii as a "paradise" and an "escape from daily life" during a pandemic has opened her eyes to Hawaii's problematic tourism industry - an industry that Slagle and Kapahua said has been problematic long before the pandemic.

Hawaiians against tourism is not new

a fire hydrant next to a waterfall: People pose for photos at Manoa Falls after a long hike near Honolulu, Hawaii before the pandemic. Carlo Allegri/Reuters © Carlo Allegri/Reuters People pose for photos at Manoa Falls after a long hike near Honolulu, Hawaii before the pandemic. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Dryden Kūʻehuikapono Chien Tzin Seto-Myers said the tourism industry has sold an image of Hawaii centered on coconut shell bras, hula skirts, and Mai Tais.

An image that commodifies Hawaiian culture and hides its colonialist past, Seto-Myers, a 21-year-old Native Hawaiian from Kailua in Oahu, told Insider.

Locals said their communities rarely benefit from the tourism sector. Native Hawaiians often fill lower-paying service jobs, and many Hawaiians have one or more jobs to survive the state's high cost of living. Meanwhile, overcrowding has harmed their historical landmarks and disrupted fragile ecosystems.

Kapahua said that for some, the ongoing pandemic has increased awareness around the issues of tourism in Hawaii.

"People have been opposed to it for a while, but now even more so given that it's literally life-threatening," he said.

Slagle said many Americans from the lower 48 states feel entitled to visit, but they rarely take the time to learn the state's history.

"It's disheartening that such a complex culture has been reduced to a grass skirt and coconut bra, and Native Hawaiians are left to try to educate people about Hawaiian history," Slagle said.

Native Hawaiians had a clear message: Don't visit during the pandemic

a group of people standing in a room: Visitors at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii, enter the state after the new pre-travel testing program launched. Marco Garcia/AP Photo © Marco Garcia/AP Photo Visitors at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii, enter the state after the new pre-travel testing program launched. Marco Garcia/AP Photo

"It's hard for me to understand why people emphasize their right to travel over the right for people to live," Seto-Myers said.

Seto-Myers, Kapahua, and Slagle urged people - vaccinated or not - to stop traveling to the state while the pandemic is ongoing.

As the New York Times reported, Hawaii's residents' thoughts on tourism typically fall into three categories: "absolutists," who want tourism to end; the status quo group who believes "tourism should remain the lifeblood of the economy;" and "the compromisers," or people that think "tourism can and should exist in concert with other sectors like farming, retail, health care, and culture."

The locals who Insider spoke to each fell into one of these categories.

Kapahua wants people to stop traveling to his home. He said he doesn't believe there's a way to ethically visit Hawaii in today's structure. Seto-Meyers agreed but acknowledged that it's an idealist mindset.

While Morlan wishes the state didn't have to rely on tourism so heavily, she said she believes that tourism isn't inherently bad. But she said tourists need to show respect, follow rules, and understand the communities' sentiments toward tourists before booking a trip.

Slagle stressed that if you do decide to visit Hawaii post-pandemic, research and learn about Hawaii's history.

"The vaccine doesn't fix ignorance," Slagle said. "Ignorance is one of the biggest threats that the Hawaiian people face in today's society."

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