- High levels of tourism haven’t gone without a negative impact on the islands of Hawaii.
- A 2022 Booking.com survey found that 66% of respondents said they wanted to experience the local culture of the places they visit.
- Visitors should take the time to research the destination beforehand to plan for more authentic experiences.
With year-round warm weather, stunning natural beauty, and a rich culture, Hawaii has earned its spot on the top of many people’s bucket lists. Each day, thousands of people arrive, excited to experience the island chain.
Unfortunately, the high levels of tourism haven’t gone without a negative impact on the islands. From overcrowded trails to traffic congestion, the islands are now seeking a new type of visitor, who wants to create a deeper connection with Hawaii.
“It is important to Hawaii to uphold the values of our native culture and we have been excellent in portraying the spirit of aloha in Hawaii and across the world, but we also need to ensure that our visitors are also on the same page,” Malia Sanders, executive director at the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, told USA TODAY.
A new kind of visitor
“The visitor of today wants to learn, they want to engage, they want to play an active role in protecting the environment and preserving the natural wonders and beauty of Hawaii so that they can continue to enjoy it again and again,” Sanders said.
In a 2022 Booking.com survey, 66% of the 30,000 respondents said they wanted to experience the local culture of the places they visit, and more than half of the respondents said they wanted to leave the place better than when they arrived.
“If you plan your itinerary full of things that are educational, cultural, leave a positive impact and make you a better visitor, you are bound to have a truly authentic experience when visiting Hawaii,” she said.
Here are a few ways you can learn more about the islands’ history and culture on a trip to Hawaii – without breaking the bank.
1. Volunteer (and it could get you a cheaper hotel bill)
Give back to the islands with your time, and in turn, you’ll meet dedicated locals and make a positive impact on the community. Many local nonprofits welcome visitors to volunteer, and you can find opportunities at travel2change.org.
Your volunteer work may even result in a cheaper hotel bill. The Hawaiian Tourism Authority recently launched the Malama Hawaii Program, offering visitors special discounts at certain hotels when they participate in a dedicated volunteer activity, such as beach cleanups or reforestation.
2. Don’t act like a tourist
Failing to take the time to research your destination beforehand can actually hinder your trip, Sanders said: “At most, you will only discover what you accidentally stumble on to, you may encounter misinformation that isn’t authentic, and you may not have an enjoyable experience if it ends up taking you into places where you may not be safe or do not belong.
“As visitors, we have a responsibility to be as best prepared as possible, whether here in Hawaii or any other destination around the world. Preparing ourselves for a deeply rich cultural place requires us to do some homework as a visitor. We want to be responsible about how we act as guests.”
By this she means learning the customs and traditions of the place you’re visiting – like how a kiss on the cheek is a common greeting in the islands – and what activities may be harmful – such as swimming too close to wildlife, or taking rocks or sand home from the beach.
Take the time to learn about where you’re staying, since different parts of the islands have cultural significance. For example, Oahu’s Waikiki, the heart of tourism in Hawaii, was once a historic battle site and where Hawaiian royalty like Princess Kaiulani owned estates.
3. Skip the chains, shop local
“Where you spend your dollar in Hawaii truly matters,” Sanders said. “In the regenerative tourism model, the circular economy is a key component to its success. Buying and shopping local reduces capital flight and keeps that dollar continuously circulating into the local economy.
“Read the labels of the things you buy while on vacation. If it is made in Hawaii, it will usually say so or have a Hawaii address on the label.”
Seek out mom-and-pop shops or Native Hawaiian-owned businesses, which you can find online at Kuhikuhi. Purchasing a gift from somewhere like the family-owned Hot Island Glass gallery on Maui rather than a big-name store will not only directly reinvest in this local family, but also give you something handcrafted and more connected to the islands.
4. Can you really know a place if you don’t eat local?
From paniolos to plantations, for many years, the agricultural sector has been a critical part of feeding Hawaii and expanding Hawaii’s staple exports, like sugar and pineapple. Choose to support and get to know the farmers and eateries that use ingredients from the islands. Plus, you’ll also be tasting some of the freshest food available and flavors from the cultures that make up modern-day Hawaii, making the decision a win-win.
More tourists seem to agree. A new study by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa found that 78% of tourists from the continental U.S. are willing to pay a premium for locally grown food.
There are lots of places to eat in Hawaii that won’t drain your wallet, such as the many Asian food stalls in Maunakea Marketplace in Honolulu’s Chinatown or a plate lunch at the family-owned Sueoka Market on Kauai.
Also consider going straight to the source and booking a farm tour, which you can find on every island, like Kona Coffee Living History Farm on Hawaii Island and O’o Farm in Upcountry, Maui. These farm tours are often inexpensive and introduce you to the passionate folks of Hawaii’s agricultural sector. You can also stop by a farmers market to check out what tropical produce is grown in Hawaii.
5. It doesn’t get more authentic than community events
Throughout the year, Hawaii hosts many festivals and events that celebrate the cultures and traditions rooted in the islands. In November, there is the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, honoring the farmers, growers and roasters of the longstanding coffee community, on the Big Island. In September, there is the Okinawan Festival on Oahu, celebrating all things Okinawan (which also has a large population in Hawaii.)
There are also smaller, more frequent events that support local businesses and the arts and culture scene, like the weekly Hanapepe Art Night on Kauai and monthly First Fridays in Honolulu. Entry to these events are often free.
6. Get deeper
Although you probably want to spend most of your time in Hawaii outside at the beach, it’s important as a visitor to get a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s past and present, from its Polynesian roots, to the tragic overthrow and statehood.
Make time to visit one of the islands’ many cultural institutions, like Honolulu’s ‘Iolani Palace to Hawaii Island’s Hulihe’e Palace. If you’re traveling on a budget, some museums like Bishop Museum, the largest collection of Hawaiian and Pacific cultural artifacts and natural specimens in the world, host After Hours events with cheaper admission.
If you prefer to stay outdoors, National Parks Service also has a list of National Historic Landmarks to visit in the state, many of which are considered sacred to Hawaiians.
7. (Hawaii) is not a place. It’s a people.
These days, many hotels in Hawaii have decided to employ cultural advisers, or people who are deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture and its values and practices. After many years of the media misrepresenting Hawaiians and their culture for entertainment and tourism, these people work hard to ensure the hotel shares Hawaiian culture in appropriate ways and set up workshops and other activities to educate guests. Often, these workshops are free to hotel guests, and you’ll meet and work with respected practitioners of their craft.
These advisers and other locals you meet on your trip can be a good source to help you weed out inauthentic activities, Sanders said.
“Hawaii is the destination, but perhaps more importantly, our visitors are coming to experience the richness of the Hawaiian culture and our people,” she said. “That feeling of deep spiritual and cultural connection, overflowing aloha and kindness, the sense of family and belonging … this is what they are missing in their own lives, and I am convinced this is why they come.”