Hawaii is absolutely beautiful, but did you know that traveling to the Aloha State has become increasingly controversial? Over the last decade, tourism has boomed in Hawaii, causing greater stress on natural resources as well as local communities. This problem intensified with the reopening of the tourism sector following the coronavirus pandemic. Though the shutdown had devastating consequences on the local economy, tourism can have the same effect on natural resources. To help you support sustainable tourism in Hawaii, I gathered a list of everything you should know prior to your visit.
Some claim that there is no respectful way to visit the Hawaiian islands. I don’t believe that to be true. After doing extensive research and discussing these issues with locals, I came up with a list of helpful tips to practice sustainable tourism in Hawaii. If you, too, are looking to preserve the local communities and ecosystem from the devastating effects of tourism, here is what you need to know.
1. Never Touch Wildlife
You should never touch wildlife. This includes turtles, monk seals, corals, manta rays, nenes, etc… Touching these animals could be extremely harmful to them, sometimes even deadly. For example, the popular manta rays of the Kona coast of the Big Island are completely harmless and only protected by their mucus layer. Touching the mantas’ mucus layer can damage it and put the animal at risk.
See also: The Ultimate 5-Day Big Island Itinerary
Be content with admiring these beautiful Hawaiian creatures from afar. If you’d like beautiful pictures, consider purchasing a telephoto lens or GoPro to capture them up close.
2. Always wear sunscreen that is reef safe
Sustainable Tourism has been a priority for the Hawaii legislature. The law indeed prohibits the sale of non reef-safe sunscreen. This website offers a great guide to reef-safe sunscreen by identifying the harmful components to avoid as well as offering great options for mineral-only sunscreen.
It is no secret that coral reefs worldwide are facing extinction. If you are lucky enough to snorkel and admire the multicolored marine life inhabiting the Hawaiian reefs, I’m sure you’ll want to make sure it stays protected forever.
For this reason, I highly encourage you to purchase sunscreen while in Hawaii. We always travel with just a carry on, so this was a given for us. If you rent snorkeling gear, make sure to ask the owner for sunscreen bottles left behind by other tourists. We got our sunscreen for free on most islands simply by asking around.
3. Don’t trespass
This may be a given, but so many tourists walk through private land in order to get to “the spot.” Seeing other people do it does not make it okay or even legal. Trespassing includes but is not limited to passing through private property, burial sites and any other cultural Native Hawaiian sites as well as improper parking. If you see a sign indicating Kapu, it means forbidden.
As you’ll read in my Maui guide, I was heartbroken to see tourists walk through and even sit in the middle of a sacred Hawaiian site within a resort. Please be mindful of the local community members who live, work, and worship where you vacation. Park only in designated locations and never enter private property or sacred Hawaiian sites without permission. Respecting the locals and their culture plays a big role in helping keep tourism sustainable in Hawaii.
Related: The Perfect 5-Day Maui Itinerary
4. Follow Hawaiian Driving Etiquette
Traffic jams are a major issue on the Hawaiian islands, but we found it especially hindering on Maui. Hawaiian roads can be quite curvy, but speed limits are usually low. Please do your very best to follow the flow of traffic. If you do not feel comfortable driving down curvy roads alongside sea cliffs, consider hiring a tour guide to drive you around the island.
On Maui, the famous Road to Hana has become increasingly clogged due to heavy tourist traffic. Locals use this road daily and are getting fed up with the jams. To help ease their burden, always make sure you allow locals -and faster drivers in general- to pass you. For more information, check out my latest article: 10 Best Stops on the Road to Hana
5. Never swim or go near water during high surf
This one is probably one of the most important piece of advice I’ll offer in this article. If you’ve read any of my other Hawaii articles, you know I have tremendous respect for the Hawaiian surf. My very first day in Hawaii, I was swept out to shore multile times while trying to enjoy the beach. Garrett was always nearby, and my life was never in danger, but it taught me a lesson on the deadly power of the Hawaiian surf.
I was so angry when we visited Olivine Pools along the very dangerous Kahekili Highway in Maui. Before getting to the pools, we saw many signs begging tourists not to climb down on the rocks during the winter months (October to April) due to higher risk for rogue waves. To illustrate the seriousness of the matter, two families had chosen to share the tragic loss of their loved one at the pools. Despite these warnings, we still saw a couple bathing down in the pools that day.
As the wife a paramedic and firefighter, it infuriates me to see tourists risking their lives and that of local first responders out of sheer selfishness. There is only one hospital serving all three islands of Maui County, and it can easily get overwhelmed caring for injured tourists. When first responders and hospital staff are tied up caring for reckless tourists, they may not be able to help local community members in dire need of medical assistance.
Please be mindful of the impact your decisions have on local communities and their emergency workers. There are plenty of gorgeous places for you to enjoy in Hawaii without risking your life or anyone else’s.
6. Always prepare before a hike
I make it a point to always warn my readers before mentioning a strenuous hike, but sometimes it still isn’t enough. Starting a hike unprepared may have devastating consequences and is the cause of many tourist deaths. To stay safe, always:
- Check for hazardous conditions that could cause flash floods
- Bring plenty of water
- Wear enough sunscreen and reapply freqeuntly during high exposure situations
- Leave yourself enough time to complete a hike before sunset
- Let someone know of your whereabouts
- Do not attempt a hike above your skill level
- Always check that you have proper reservations or permits
7. Tip your waiter or guide
The cost of living is extremely high in Hawaii, so make sure you tip your waiters and guides accordingly. Growing up in Europe, I am not used to the tipping culture and actually find it quite annoying. I often feel forced to pay an additional 20% for basic service just because it’s expected and not because it’s earned.
However, I was blown away by the Hawaiian hospitality. All of our guides and waiters went above and beyond to make sure we had the most pleasant and memorable experience. Mason, our mountain tubing guide, helped us fall even more in love with Kauai, the island he calls home. Gerry, our waiter at the Old Lahaina Luau, provided great service and tons of advice for the rest of our time on Maui. In my opinion, tipping is a small price to pay to help keep the Hawaii locals’ lifestyle sustainable as they make tourism available to us.
Related: Kauai – 25 Best Things to See and Do
8. Educate Yourself on the Necessity for Sustainable Tourism in Hawaii
Before traveling to Hawaii, I posted in a Facebook travel group asking for recommendations. I was quickly attacked for even considering traveling to Hawaii. I had done lots of research prior to my trip and knew that tourists weren’t always welcome, but I hadn’t expected such vile responses.
Those who attacked me claimed that Native Hawaiians were asking people not to visit Hawaii at all. In a state where 23% of the economy relies solely on tourism, it simply didn’t seem feasible to me. After talking extensively with the locals during our trip, I realized that a complete ban on tourism is not what most local Hawaiians want. What they do want if for tourists to be more respectful of the land and its people. After witnessing many tourists’ reckless behavior, I believe that is more than fair!
Though I do not agree with shaming tourists for visiting Hawaii, I do believe it is important to educate oneself on the impact that tourism has on the local communities, particularly the Native Hawaiian populations. During our trip, we made it a point to see without being seen and to put our money in the hands of local businesses. Our goal was for our visit to interfere as little as possible with the locals’ everyday life. That included not hindering the flow of traffic; choosing smaller, local accommodations not owned by large corporations; avoiding resorts; never trespassing; respecting wildlife; eating local; and more.
See also: Hawaiian Food Bucket List
Tourism is having a devastating impact on rent, and many local Hawaiians are having to move and sell their homes because they can no longer afford to live on their island. It is truly heartbreaking. Oahu recently took drastic measures to help combat the housing crisis in Honolulu, the state’s capital. Read more on this new legislation here.
HOW IS AIRBNB CAUSING HOUSING SHORTAGE IN HAWAII?Homes that could house locals are now rented out to tourists at a much higher price. this doesn’t just cause the rental prices to spike, it also makes it nearly impossible for locals to find affordable housing. a solution to this problem could be to stay in smaller accomodations like hostels and avoid pricey, private air bnbs. When we did stay in an air bnb, it was a single room within a private residence that wouldn’t be suitable housing for a local.
I do hope this article was informative and helps you make better decisions regarding your travels to Hawaii. Please, help promote sustainable tourism in Hawaii by sharing this article with friends and family planning a trip to the 50th state.