Locals in Oahu know that the best way to get from Waikiki’s crowded beaches to the cool North Shore is to drive along the island’s eastern coast. The road is framed by mountains, ocean and greenery so lush and beautiful, it’s hard to focus the eye on one place for too long, for fear of missing the next scenic attraction.
On a recent trip along the route, something else stood out: the upside down Hawaiian flags flying at almost every stop.
The flag, which has the union jack in the bottom left corner, instead of the usual top left, hung in storefronts in Waikiki and was printed on T-shirts in Waimanalo, it was stuck on the bumpers of passing cars in Kailua and flying from the backs of trucks in Kahuku and other towns on the North Shore.
The flag has become a symbol of solidarity among Hawaiians who oppose the construction of a large new telescope on Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea, at 32,000 feet from seafloor to summit, and with 13,796 feet above sea level, is one of the best places in the northern hemisphere, if not the world, to observe the cosmos, experts say. The telescope’s proponents say that it will bring hundreds of jobs to the island and advance humanity’s study of space.
But it has faced fierce resistance from some native Hawaiians for whom Mauna Kea is sacred ground and a place of roots, and their allies. Opponents of the telescope say they are tired of having their land taken for purposes that benefit others and for the often elusive promise of jobs that fail to deliver in terms of numbers or a living wage.
“The struggle at Mauna Kea right now is one of the biggest issues that has realigned many cultural political relationships in Hawaii,” said Kyle Kajihiro, an activist and lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It’s really quite an amazing emergence of Hawaiian activism of cultural awareness.”
The battle over the telescope has revealed fissures that have long existed in Hawaii, a place that is all but synonymous with tourism — the most-popular destination for honeymoons in the United States and a bucket-list perennial. The fight has inspired actions around the islands, all relating to how land is used and who benefits from it.
The spirit of protest is most visible in Oahu, where in Kahuku demonstrators have spent the last several months fighting the construction of eight wind turbines, each standing at 568 feet — taller than the tallest skyscraper in Honolulu. Protesters say the turbines will have adverse long term health effects on the population. The company building them says there is no evidence to support those claims and promises to bring jobs to the area. More than 160 people have been arrested there.
In southeast Oahu, in September, 28 people were arrested trying to block the building of a park and recreation center in Waimanalo, a largely agricultural town. The developers behind the center say it will bring jobs and create a new community space, but opponents fear it will be a magnet for tourists and will destroy the forest and beach used by locals.
In Honolulu, in May, Hilton employees protested, demanding a better contract and job protections. In July, hotel employees went on strike to protest what they said were low wages and the firing of 45 workers by Diamond Resorts, an operator of multiple properties in the United States and Europe. The company said it would turn one of its hotels into a timeshare resort, which requires fewer workers than a traditional hotel.
“We value our dedicated team members at The Modern Honolulu and we were pleased to reach a contract agreement that includes a significant pay increase,” a spokesman for Diamond said. “We are continuing our planned efforts to convert the property into a world-class vacation ownership resort.”
Most people in Hawaii, especially in the tourism industry work more than one job to barely get by, said Bryant de Venecia, communications organizer for the workers’ union, Unite Here Local 5, which represents resort workers.
“Mauna Kea has lit a fire for Hawaiians who are tired of watching their land, resources and work be used at the expense of their well-being,” he said.
Hawaii is the most expensive state to live in, according to the 2018 Annual Average Cost of Living Index by the Council for Community and Economic Research. Groceries, for example, cost more than 60 percent the national average.
“People are tired of being decorative — Hawaiians as well as people who live in Hawaii,” said Maile Meyer, who owns Nā Mea Hawai’i, a bookstore in Honolulu that sells products from smaller local makers. “You’re seeing a phenomenon of natives gathering again and completely finding our way back to each other as part of the solution.”
Jobs aren’t enough
A common thread between these protests is that they are being led by locals. They say that since Europeans first arrived in the 18th century, Hawaiian land has been taken and misused by non-Hawaiians, and often to the detriment of Hawaiians and their traditions. The endeavors that have sparked these recent protests all promise jobs, just as tourism and defense have in the past.
But perhaps for the first time in recent Hawaiian history, natives and locals are saying the quality of these jobs is not good enough.
“We’re having to move away from quantity to quality,” said Laurien Baird Hokuli’i Helfrich-Nuss, the founder of Conscious Concepts, a company that works with local organizations on sustainable tourism initiatives. “Now that local people are getting more agency, they are learning more, going into a more curious space of saying ‘It’s great that this company is providing jobs, but what kind of jobs are they? Are they good jobs? Are they paying a livable wage?”
Tourism is the biggest driver of Hawaii’s economy, accounting for 21 percent of jobs. Nearly 10 million people visited the state in 2018 and in 2019, guest arrivals were expected to surpass that number, hitting a record high. And although more people are visiting Hawaii, they are spending less there.
Locals say that resorts are often owned and run by non-Hawaiians, with Hawaiian people employed in the lower-paying service jobs, and that development often benefits outsiders at the expense of native and local well-being.
“There historically hasn’t been enough consideration for how tourism and tourists can contribute to making life sustainable and really livable for the locals who serve them here,” Mr. de Venecia said.
More than a “play land”
The feeling of escape — of fleeing to a nearby paradise with stunning beaches and luxurious resorts — has long been Hawaii’s appeal to the traveling public. While the hottest trends in travel now are the search for authenticity and ways to experience local life, many people who visit Hawaii are looking to get away from daily life. They come to sit on the beach and drink a matai without thinking about much else. Their interaction with local culture is often limited to watching a hula show at the hotel luau.
“We realized a lot of folks who would visit us who would normally have more consciousness about history and social justice concerns seem to turn off that part of their brain when they think about Hawaii,” Mr. Kajihiro, the activist and lecturer, said, adding that people treat the islands as a “play land.”
But this decision to turn off their brains is hurting Hawaii and Hawaiians, he said.
While working for the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker peace and justice organization, Mr. Kajihiro and his colleague Terrilee Kekoʻolani studied the environmental and social effects of colonization, militarization and overdevelopment of Hawaii. They learned that tourism was one of the industries with some of the most damaging effects on Oahu, he said, citing overcrowding, a higher cost of living and higher prices for goods.
The pair began offering alternative tours of the island, which they call DeTours, in 2004 and have seen increased interest in recent years. Their work was included in the recently published Duke University Press book “DeTours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaii,” a collection of essays, interviews and family histories about ethical and contextualized tourism in the islands.
The tours are given to groups of people who want to learn about Hawaii from the perspective of local Hawaiians. They include a deep history on the ways military life is hidden across the island. During a typical tour, guests go to Iolani Palace, the Hawaiian royal residence, then to Chinatown and some of the old neighborhoods where new immigrants to Hawaii traditionally settled. The next stop is usually Fort Shafter, the headquarters of the United States Army Pacific; then Camp Smith, but the main part of the tour is Ke Awalau o Puʻuloa — Pearl Harbor.
During a DeTours of Pearl Harbor, Mr. Kajihiro pauses in the “Oahu court” between the Pearl Harbor galleries and the museum and asks guests to look at the placards in the hallway. At the placard that says, “The Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown in 1893,” he explains that this one sentence has been controversial with the United States government because it acknowledges the government-backed overthrow of Queen Lili’uokolani, which unsettles American claims to Hawaii. In the museum’s Attack Gallery, Mr. Kajihiro points to a small image of the Hono’uli’uli internment camp where Japanese people were held during World War II and uses it as a jumping-off point for a conversation about immigration and civil rights.
“People already come here with so many images and ideas about what Hawaii is that it’s really hard for them to see something different, so that’s why we started calling our work ‘DeTours,” Mr. Kajihiro said. “To swerve off the path that most people are going to see or understand and consume and shake it up by raising some more critical perspectives and introducing a lot of historical facts that are not so pleasant.”
A new type of tourism
The DeTours team is part of a movement looking to change what tourism means in Hawaii. Ms. Nuss, of Conscious Concepts, is originally from Oahu and returned in 2009 after working in hospitality in the Caribbean, New York, Miami and other places on the United States mainland.
“I came home seeing something happening in Hawaii that I didn’t see when I left,” she said. “My generation was stepping into their leadership roles and doing it differently, reconnecting for a movement back to the land.”
But she quickly realized that what many companies were doing didn’t align with her vision for supporting tourism while ensuring the well-being of overworked Hawaiians.
In 2015, Ms. Nuss created her company to find ways to support Hawaiian businesses function sustainably while also remaining a key part of the most important sector in Oahu — tourism. Ms. Nuss has worked with farms, artists and nonprofit organizations to change their offerings so they can appeal to tourists, while still benefiting Hawaiians. A farm hoping to attract tourists to volunteer might turn to her to figure out the best ways to reach them. She described her work with as “consciously creating experiences for travelers and opportunities for locals.”
“I had a realization about how our tourism industry is presently run, which is coming from the commodification of culture,” she said. “I realized what was happening in my communities and the value systems that were driving it were contradictory to the form of tourism that I was being a part of.”
To give tourists a more authentic experience of “the real Hawaii,” the artists Roxy and Matt Ortiz, invite them into their studio in the Kaka’ako district of Honolulu. The couple is known for their elaborate murals of fanciful tree houses, which they create under the name Wooden Wave.
“When people come see us work, it gives them a totally different way to experience Hawaii,” Ms. Ortiz said. “And it’s a fun way for us to give tourists a different experience than they usually see in those brochures.”
In these studio visits, guests can see the couple’s work in progress, but also learn about ahupua’a, the ancient system of land division, in which the island was separated into slices, each slice running from the top of the local mountain to the shore. During the visit, Mr. Ortiz explains that each ahupua’a included forest area up high and a cultivated area below, and depending on the politics and economy of each ahupua’a, its size was different from another.
Mr. Ortiz said that even the slightest opportunity for tourists to think about how water and land have always worked together and why they hold importance to Hawaiians can encourage them to be more thoughtful when interacting with locals and the land and sea while visiting.
“When people have some of the history and context they can appreciate the art more and they can experience the island in a more meaningful way,” he said.
Another way tourists can learn about the land and engage with locals is by visiting a local farm like Kahumana Farm in Waianae on the west side of Oahu.
In November, Chloe Anderson, a therapist and teacher in California, visited the farm and stayed for four of her six days in Oahu. There she shared a room with others, did yoga, learned about the produce grown and cooked on the farm and generally felt like she got a more meaningful experience than she would have at a luxury resort, removed from daily Hawaiian life.
“We had like three or four different activities we would do every day,” she said. “But so many things were based off the farm and at the farm. We still had the experience of being a tourist in Hawaii and going on hikes and beach excursions, but also of experiencing something more.”
Some business owners are committed to staying in the tourism sector, and are trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that people just won’t work in the main industry there is and I don’t think Hawaiians want to stop tourism altogether, but we are all working to find ways of doing it responsibly and thoughtfully,” said Shane Hiroshi Gibler, who co-owns Royal Hawaiian Catamaran, which is based in Honolulu and offers snorkel tours, sunset cruises and private charters.
On Mr. Gibler’s boat, guests are asked not to bring any plastic and recycling is available aboard. Mr. Gibler educates guests an education about fishing, food and the importance of the ocean and the land to Hawaiians. The Royal Catamaran team regularly gathers people to clean up the shoreline and has been working with the Surfrider Foundation to remove ghost nets — fishing nets that have been lost or left behind by fishing boats — from reefs or the ocean.
The idea, one echoed by Mr. Kajihiro, is to encourage tourists to think about how they can leave their resort, even for one day of their trip, and contribute to the place they are visiting.
“The point is to make folks more responsible when they come here and to interrogate this notion that Hawaii is somehow a place for them,” Mr. Kajihiro said. “If you are thinking about coming here, ask yourself: Who are you in relation to this place? Are you bringing something that will be of value to the host, the people who live here? What will be your impact and your legacy be?”