The Hawaiian Islands: Paradise lost?

By Grace Duffy / July 28, 2021

The Hawaiian Islands normally conjures up images of palm trees, crystal clear waters, hula dancers, Hawaiian shirts, and, essentially, the ultimate paradise on earth. But what if, instead, the reality was overcrowded beaches, pollution, shortages of imported goods, overpriced necessities, and a clash between heritage versus tourism? Would you still wish to visit these Islands? In this article, we will be discussing some of the lesser-known problems plaguing these tropical islands and what is being done to help.



Hawaii is made up of eight major islands and has been part of the U.S territory since 1898, but officially became the 50th U.S state on August 21st, 1959. The relationship between native Hawaiians, the American citizens who also call it home, and other expats who choose to move there, has always been fragile, as many natives consider the presence of the U.S military to be an occupation of sorts. This tension, coupled with arguments over land and an overwhelming boom in tourism, has segregated the different communities who call this tropical paradise home. 



As of the most recent figures from 2021, there are currently 1.4 million people living in Hawaii. However, when we look at the numbers of tourists visiting the islands every year, that number increases, with a record-breaking 10.4 million tourists visiting the islands in 2019 before the pandemic hit. Whilst tourism does bring with it certain economic benefits in terms of business for the residents on the Islands, it has also had a devastating impact on the natural environment and exacerbated tensions between locals and tourists.

One such example is the constant need to replace structures on the various walking trails due to the increase in foot traffic that occurs during the busy period and the traffic congestion that occurs on an almost daily basis. In Honolulu alone, the situation with overcrowding on the popular tourist beaches, such as Kailua, has gotten so bad that, due to the overabundance of suncream washing off in the ocean, it is now harming the natural habitat. Not to mention the additional human and domestic waste that is created from housing millions of tourists every year. 

In an effort to combat this, there have been efforts to curb pollution and protect the land as much as possible. One such measure was the banning of single-use plastic bags on the Islands since 2015, whilst any animal, insect, or plant that is deemed a threat to the local species can be confiscated at the airport by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. There has also been a surge in police activity to combat animal harassment in Hawaii due to the rise of tourists flouting laws in pursuit of more daring social media posts.

For example, it is a federal crime to approach, touch or harm the endangered monk seals, a species that is native only to Hawaii, or the turtles that are found on the beaches. Breaking this law is punishable by either substantial jail time or a hefty fine of $1500. The need for these harsher punishments has been in response to the huge influx of tourists and the unfortunate rise of social media. There have been numerous examples of tourists who have fallen foul of these laws in their attempt to make TikTok videos or to capture a picture of themselves posing with the animals. 



This influx of people to the island also brings with it a substantial rise in the cost of living. As it is an island nation, the fast consumption of imported goods means that the average price for basic necessities has risen over the years. For example, a gallon of milk will cost $8.99, whilst a pound of locally grown mangoes can cost around $6.99. These steep prices are just the tip of the iceberg as, due to its desirable location and the rise in demand for limited space, Hawaii is also home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world. This, in turn, drives the costs of renting up for locals and, for many, the dream of owning their own home has become a distant dream. 

These costs have also led to a rise in homelessness, with the majority of these people belonging to the native Hawaiian group, and many homeless people suffering from addiction, PTSD, and other mental illnesses as well. In addition to this, segregation between communities and poverty has occurred, which has also created a recurring problem regarding property crime and theft. 



On the other side of this coin, there are also the cultural problems associated with over-tourism. The native Hawaiians, who call themselves the Kanaka Maoli, are extremely protective of their heritage and various sites on the Islands, as they are believed to hold particular spiritual importance and a connection to ancestors. For example, Mauna Kea, which is the tallest mountain in Hawaii and a dormant volcano, is thought to be a sacred spot and was the subject of protests in recent years. 

The problem arose when it was decided that Mauna Kea would become home to the world’s largest telescope installation due to its height and strategic location but was protested on the grounds that its construction would damage the surrounding environment. Not to mention that there are already thirteen smaller telescopes on various parts of the mountain already. This fight between culture and modernisation has deepened the divide between people and further increased tensions.

Another point of tension is the taking of lava rocks and sand from Hawaii by tourists. One such belief is that, if you take a small part of the earth from the Hawaiian Islands, you will incur the wrath of the Volcanic goddess, Pele, and bad luck will follow you forever until the piece that you took is returned to the islands. Whilst some have dismissed this as nothing more than an old wives tale told simply to scare tourists into behaving on their travels, the Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii receives hundreds of packages every year from tourists containing rocks and sand, obviously hoping to get rid of their bad luck. 

Whilst this may seem harmless and easily fixed, it does shed light on the selfishness of the tourism industry with regard to the local people, both native and American, who are trying to go about their lives. This is not to say that Hawaii and its residents do not welcome visitors or that the islands are dying, merely that those who wish to travel there on holiday or make it their new home need to be aware of their impact on the environment. There needs to be clear communication for those visiting on what they can and cannot do, and greater respect fostered to rebalance some of the inequalities. In essence, leave it the way you found it. 

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 


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Grace Duffy

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