Hawaii's 'overtourism' becomes growing debate as West Maui reopens for visitors

ByKiara Alfonseca ABCNews logo
Sunday, October 8, 2023
Hawaii 'overtourism' debate grows as West Maui reopens for visitors
West Maui began reopening Sunday to visitors just two months after a wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina.

MAUI, HAWAII -- West Maui began reopening Sunday to visitors just two months after a wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina.

The reopening did not come without outrage from some residents, many of whom signed a petition to delay the reopening as families continue to struggle to "find shelter, provide for their children's education, and cope with emotional trauma," according to the petition.

Homes have been flattened and are completely inhabitable. Businesses have been decimated. Some loved ones remain unaccounted for and residents have been grieving the loss of 97 people who died in the tragedy.

The petition has received more than 10,000 signatures.

The fact that tourism is resuming so soon around the outskirts of a town made unrecognizable by the wildfires has reignited an ongoing debate about Hawaii's reliance on tourism.

"There is just not a lot of activities like there usually is for these people to do, so a lot of people are wondering, why do they want to come here?" said Jordan Ruidas, a community organizer and resident.

Tourism is the No. 1 driver of that state's economy, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority, and businesses across the island have been impacted by the lack of visitors since the Aug. 8 wildfires.

But some residents link tourism and its historical links to colonialism with many of the issues plaguing the Islands, including lack of access to clean water, the housing crisis, and pollution and destruction of Hawaiian lands.

"It's a great business for Hawaii, but the difficult thing for us here is that there is not a street, a community, a county. There's nowhere that you can hide from tourism in Hawaii," said Susie Pu, a hotel manager on Maui.

She continued, "The most important thing is that we find a balance between the Hawaiian culture and tourism. Hawaiian people need to be benefiting from tourism equally. And I do not see that."

Hawaii before tourism

Hawaii didn't always rely on tourism as its main source of income.

According to research from the University of Hawaii, Hawaiian society was self-sustaining and run in cooperative, extended ohana -- or family -- that each manned subdivisions of land.

Native Hawaiians were recorded to have been living "well above subsistence levels, with extensive time available for cultural activities, sports, and games" before their long period of isolation from outsiders came to an end, the University of Hawaii found.

Contact with the outside world in the 1770s changed Hawaii drastically. Deaths caused a massive wave of fatalities, leading to a 90% decline in the Native Hawaiian population, according to research from the National Academy of Medicine.

The Hawaiian Kingdom and monarchy were formed during this period of change, adopting Western political strategies to settle disputes between competing Hawaiian states. The Islands also became integrated into the global market, losing its past self-sustaining system.

This drastic social, economic, and political change was marked by a shift to sugar production when a treaty with the U.S. exempted sugar firms on the island from high tariffs.

"The story of sugar is really, really important because in a lot of ways it was the wealthy and powerful corporations that promoted sugar to the kingdom that really were responsible for seeking markets in the United States," Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoole Osorio, the dean of the Hawaiinuikea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, said.

"That's all a part of the story of not just the rise, but the fall of the (Hawaiian) kingdom," said Osorio.

As production expanded, American corporations producing sugar on the Islands sought to keep prices high and labor costs lower, hiring cheaper immigrant labor and lobbying for an immigration policy that would allow them to do so, historians say.

"While sugar did actually generate a great deal of income, most of that income really acted to sort of replace Native Hawaiians in the country," said Osorio.

Efforts to expand sugar production and house waves of imported labor pushed Native Hawaiians from their land, home, and island.

Throughout this time, laborers were organizing against low wages and poor benefits, and "the sugar companies began to lose a little bit of control. Everybody can sort of see that in the future, sugar is not going to be as profitable as it once was," according to Osorio.

However, World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 put labor rights efforts to a halt.

It wasn't until the late 1940s that workers began to make real concessions -- getting better benefits and salaries.

"Sugar companies really basically are looking at an industry that's not nearly as conducive to profits as it once was. Plus, in the post-war world, there's also new competition from places like the Philippines," Osorio added.

By the 1970s, more and more plantations were shutting down and they were moving toward using their lands for a tourist economy.

"Tourism would not exist at the scale that it exists today if it weren't for the takeover," Osorio said.

Vulnerability in tourism reliance

Following the wildfires on the West side, occupancy at the oceanfront condo resort Hana Kai Maui on the other side of the island was impacted almost immediately.

"We have always operated at a really high occupancy, almost like 95% year round. The day of the fires or the day after the fires, it was just such a downward slide," Pu said.

"We lost hundreds of 1000s of dollars in reservations over about a one-week period. And we're only a 17-unit business so it was a lot. We're recovering," she added.

Noah Drazkowski, who was born and raised in West Maui and owns a local business, told ABC News in a previous interview that he's been grieving alongside his community while looking for ways to keep his local business afloat.

"The majority of our income is from tourists, tourism, and I wish that we could say that we can survive on only the local community support," said Drazkowski.

Some business owners are torn about the future of tourism in Maui.

In 2022 alone, Hawaii saw nearly 10 million visitors, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Islands saw roughly 2.7 million.

Now, approximately 70% of every dollar is generated directly or indirectly by the visitor industry, according to the Maui Economic Development Board.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how life in Hawaii could be without "overtourism," Osorio said.

"We started really seeing what happens to beaches and what happens to the ocean and what happens to mountain trails, hiking trails when they are free of so many people," said Osorio. "The quality of life in so many ways improves not (just for the people) but for other species that have depended on this environment for a long time."

Pu added: "We want tourists in Hawaii, but we also want to be able to live peacefully here and we want our forests to remain intact."

The impacts of tourism

Being a popular tourist destination comes with its challenges.

The Aloha State is experiencing one of the worst housing crises in America, with some of the highest housing costs in the nation and the fourth-highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country, according to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The U.S. has acknowledged its historical responsibility for causing this housing crisis among Native Hawaiians through its 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, a reparations policy that set aside land for Native communities after the violent displacement and removal of Native Hawaiians.

Parts of Maui have also been under a water conservation notice in recent years, as an intense drought and dry conditions limit the region's access to water. With hotels and resorts taking up their share of the water, some locals wish that water would be directed toward residents, especially following the deadly wildfire in which firefighters in Lahaina claimed that their hoses ran dry.

Politicians have been under pressure from some residents to look for a way to diversify the economy and for land to be given back to the Native Hawaiian population. As tourism comes back toward the disaster area, the conversation around tourism is unlikely to settle down.

"Our desire is to provide for ourselves so that we can properly feed ourselves, so that we can actually have places to live, so that we can protect the lands from misuse," said Osorio.