Tourism’s Negative Impact on Native Hawaiians

By Rev. Kaleo Patterson

Rev. Patterson is both a member of the Hawaii Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism and the Board of Directors of the North America Coordinating Centre of Responsible Tourism.  This is an abridged version of a presentation made by Rev. Patterson to a March 1992 international tourism fair in Berlin.

    The most pressing human rights issues in Hawaii today are those that are integrally connected to the impact of tourism on Native Hawaiians.

    I am pastor of a small rural church on the island of Kauai.  I am very close to those who work in the tourism industry, in particular the Hawaiians who struggle day in and day out with the unescapable reality of a dominant and greed driven industry.  I have counseled the prostitute, the desk clerk, the made and the bartender.  I have been involved in hundreds of reburials of ancient Hawaiian grave sites because of a new resort development or existing resort renovations.  I have witnessed the desecration of our sacred places, cried over the senseless pollution of our reefs and rivers.  I have held picket signs in protest, given testimony at public hearings, even chased an obstinate tourist into the sanctuary of a local restaurant in an attempt to vent my anger in confrontation.  I have seen the oppression and exploitation of an out of control global industry that has no understanding of limits or concern for the host people of a land.

    Most of all, I know and feel the suffering in the Hawaiian communities because I live in one.  My parish is not isolated from the ravaging impact of tourism.  As you drive into our community, you will see the flower and lie stands, roadside gift shops and fast food stops that are all very meagre but hopeful attempts to gain economic prosperity.  Also, I am a Native Hawaiian.  My brothers have worked in the restaurants, have been lifeguards at the beach; my sisters have danced the hula and one has worked for the developer of a major resort.  For the last three years, I have been involved with the Hawaii Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism advocating responsible tourism in Hawaii.  IT is with this background that I am able to say with some certainty that the majority of Hawaiians long for a better way of life, one that is filled with the simple respect and dignity that today’s tourism industry can never come close to offering.

Minimal Economic Benefit for Hawaiians
    Most Hawaiians will bear witness that tourism, as a foreigner dominated enterprise, is the plague which an already oppressed people must endure with very few other economic options or alternatives in life.  Many end up choosing the lesser options even if it means unemployment or criminal activity.  It is no accident that Hawaiians are the poorest of all people in Hawaii, capturing the highest percentage of unemployment and welfare recipients.  It is also not an accident that as a population group Native Hawaiians dominate the prison populations.

    Tourism is wholly concerned with self-preservation as an industry and not with the well-being of the community.  In March of 1991, during the dramatic decline of visitors to Hawaii due to the Gulf War, the Hawaii State Legislature readily allocated as an emergency measure 6 million dollars to be used by the Hawaii Visitors Bureau for television commercials on the mainland USA.  During the same period, hundred of hotel employees were laid off in one of the largest layoffs in recent years.  The striking thing is that no emergency measures to assist the unemployed were introduced or even considered.

    While the few local elites and transnational corporations are the primary beneficiaries of a dominant tourism industry, Native Hawaiians continue to be the poorest, sickest and least educated of all people in Hawaii.  When one looks at the social and economic indicators of well-being, the conclusion is clear.  Tourism has not benefited the host Native Hawaiian people and it probably never will.  To understand this, one must understand that Hawaii today is at the mercy of transnational interests.  Foreign investment related to tourism went from 70.8 million dollars in 1981 to over a billion and a half in 1986.  The increase is enough to make anyone’s head spin and confirms the vulnerability of Hawaii and Hawaii’s people.  Japanese investment in leading the pack has plunked down over 3 billion dollars for hotels alone in a time period of eighteen years ending 1989.  The Australians are far behind the second place with 117 million.  Today, almost every major hotel is owned by foreign investors and almost every hotel on the drawing board is being funded by foreign investment.  The rapid and phenomenal increase of foreign investment is the clearest indication that any consideration of the short and long term negative impact of tourism is of no consequence to those involved in the industry.

    It was greedy business interests that caused the illegal overthrow of the Hawaii Nation in1893 and this became the capstone of oppression for a people who welcomed the foreigner.  A hundred years later, the greed continues and Native Hawaiians remain victims of an exploitation whose guise is an industry called tourism.  A basic human right is the ability of a people to be self-governing, self-determining and self-sufficient.  This right was taken away from Hawaiians when the nation was overthrown.  Tourism in many respects perpetuates the oppression.

    In its current form, tourism has evolved to a point where it is of minimal economic consequence to Hawaiians.  In fact, given the very nature in which tourism is involved in cultural invasion and environmental exploitation, the Hawaiian – by culture, values and tradition – cannot support or sustain tourism unless it is made to be more respectful of people and land.  Tourism does not provide a viable economic alternative to Hawaiians in its present structure and nature.  This is a difficult situation because tourism as a dominant industry stifles economic diversification and weakens existing agricultural and technological development.  Tourism in Hawaii makes it too costly and impractical to engage in economic diversification.  Statistics show a correlation between the increase in tourism and a dramatic decrease in previously primary industries such as agriculture and federal spending.  Visitor expenditures in 1980 made up 24% of the Gross State Product.  In 1988, this figure had increased to 43%.

    Hotel rooms have increased dramatically and the projections are even more astonishing:

    When considering the strain on community infrastructure and negative impact upon the environment, the projected visitor figures for the future are mind boggling:     In the 1991 State Functional Plan published by the State Department of Business and Economic Development and the Office of Tourism, the following statement is telling: “The visitor industry is viewed as the primary growth engine for the foreseeable future…. Other industries such as diversified agriculture, aquaculture and other technology oriented industries may grow, but barring major reversals in the fortunes of the visitor industry, no significant challenges are anticipated….

    Hawaii, it seems, is headed toward a non-diversified economic future that will be totally dependent upon al already insecure and over-developed visitor industry.  Tourism therefore, will continue to be a major obstacle in the movement of Hawaiians towards self-governance and self-determination.  More poverty and the continuation of the negative impact upon Native Hawaiians will be the inevitable outcome of the future of tourism in Hawaii.

Cultural Invasion
    The second major impact of tourism on Native Hawaiians must be understood as an invasion of all that is sacred to a people.

today your words are empty
sucking dry the brown dust
left by earth and sky
patches politely parched
with no water flowing
from the mountaintop
scars burn on my soft skin
you’ve cut a piece of me away
leaving my bandaged heart
to endure the pain
of your trying me to yourself.
                                Dr. Konai Helu-Thaman
    Dr. Konai Helu-Thaman, a Tongan university instructor, was one of several speakers addressing the negative impact of tourism on indigenous peoples at Interpretation International’s Third global congress held in Honolulu in November 1991.  In expressing the grief tourism has caused indigenous people in the Pacific, she stated:

    “Tourism continues to be the major contributor to a process of cultural invasion… Such an invasion has left its marks on most island environments… (and those marks can symbolize) the erosion and ultimate death of indigenous island cultures and their value systems.”

    An examination of the marketing and promotion of Hawaii in the world markets will reveal the obvious packaging of an “aloha for Sale” approach that has been referred to as “hula” marketing.  Hula marketing is the marketing of a people and culture for the express purpose of exploitative economic benefit.  In hula marketing, the Hawaiian culture is romanticized to appeal to the exotic fantasies of world travelers.  The popular images such as smiling flower adorned girls and hula dancers, or exotic moonlit feasts with natives serving hand and foot, are typical.  This kind of marketing and promotion perpetuates racist and sexist stereotypes that are culturally inappropriate and demeaning.

    When the primary means of promotion is dependent upon a culture and people, and the perception that “all is well in paradise” is put forward while in fact “all is not well”, then the issue becomes one of cultural prostitution.  It becomes the selling of an artificial cultural image that has complete disregard for the truth, at the expense and pain of Native Hawaiians who are struggling to survive.  From printed brochure to life in the fast lane, tourism promotes the development and practice of an entertainment and visitor oriented culture.  The follow-through with marketing and promotion is part and parcel of the “plastic tikis, Kodak hula, and concrete waterfalls”.

    That the visitor industry would be so blatant in promoting Hawaii via cultural images and ideas, and not support to any greater degree the perpetuation of authentic and living Hawaiian culture and language in the local comminutes, is another expression of cultural prostitution.  An example on the local political scene is the unchastised governmental support of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau to the tune of several millions of dollars every year.  Compare this with the lack of direct funding to support programming to perpetuate the culture or the recovery of the language of Native Hawaiians and one can only conclude that tourism is a one way street.

    Tourism development in Hawaii most often takes place at the expense of a people’s cultural and historical symbols and land based resources.  Tourism development has played a major role in the destruction of ancient Hawaiian burial grounds, significant archaeological historic sites and sacred places.  Almost every major resort development has been built on some culturally significant site.  Community opposition is usually based in these cultural issues.  The usually insensitive approach and manner of development leaves the local community to conclude that there is no respect or concern for the culture and identity of Hawaiian people.

    Last year on the island of Kauai at a development site called Keonaloa, a well known ancient Hawaiian burial ground was excavated to make way for a condominium resort project.  Of the total 22 acres of burial grounds, community opposition led to mitigation that resulted in the setting aside of a one acre parcel to be used to relocate all excavated burials.  The one acre parcel has been incorporated into the planned resort and will be used as a marketing feature of the development.  Recently, when hundred of bones were returned to Kauai from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., they were interned at this one acre site in the middle of the resort development.

    On Maui, at a place called Honokahua, a developer’s excavations unearthed over 1100 intact burial bundles, while local community groups protested in anger.  It was only after mass demonstrations and strong community support that the developer was stopped and asked to discontinue the project.

    What more blatant evidence of cultural invasion than the desecration and destruction of the very sacred burial places of a people?

    Last year, for the first time, a statewide Burials Council was formed to facilitate the many questions and concerns of ancient burials.  The impact of tourism development upon these sites is a primary concern.

    Other cultural and historic sites, hundred in number, have been bulldozed to make way for hotel and golf course development.  Many others have been turned into tourist attractions and are desecrated in their use and misuse.  These include heiau or ancient temples, house sites, fishing shrines, ceremonial platforms and agricultural sites.

Destruction of the Land Base and Environment
    The third major impact of tourism on Native Hawaiians must be understood in the context of environmental exploitation.  The character of indigenous Pacific cultures in relationship to the land is one based on a high level of environmental awareness and ecological conservatism.  The relationship of people to land, and people to sea, is spiritual and religious.  Land is the base around which a culture evolves.  When tourism takes away the land, takes away access to the fishing grounds or the right to gather food or medicine, the Hawaiian loses a primary means of livelihood, and more important, meaning in life.

    On the island of Hawaii, a massive geothermal development project is doing just that.  The development underway envisions a questionable plan to supply the enormous amounts of energy required for projected resort developments.  The plan also hopes to test a new underwater cable that will go from the island of Hawaii to Oahu.  The environmental risks are many.  Not only is there a threat to the rainforest and the ocean, but toxic fumes threaten the community’s health.  Community members have already reported health problems from the toxic fumes.  This project has met with fierce opposition by community groups such as the Pele Defense fund and the Rainforest Action Group.  In a related issue a couple of years ago, the proposed private site owned by the Campbell estate was rendered useless when lava flowed from an eruption of the volcano, Kilauea.  To remedy the situation, the State government released 25,000 acres of Hawaiian Homelands to be used in exchange with other private lands.  The 25,000 acres of Hawaiian Homelands consists of one of the ??? to make way for the exploratory drilling that needs to take place.  In the cultural arena, Hawaiians on the volcano took the developer to the Supreme Court claiming that the drilling desecrates the religious significance of the volcano and the goddess Pele.  The suit was thrown out of court, on the basis that the Hawaiian religion was not “site” specific and the volcano did not qualify as a specific site.

    Crowded beaches and commercial tour boating does much to threaten shoreline or coastal fishing through noise or chemical pollution.  The state has begun to identify beach parks and nearshore areas that are exceeding capacity use because of significant resident and visitor numbers.  User conflicts between residents and visitors are becoming a problem and are expected to escalate as tourism and ocean recreation industries continue to grow.

    There have been occasions when Hawaiian families and communities who have lived for generations in a valley or along a river are forced to leave because of a proposed golf course or hotel.  Recently this happened to families in Hana, Maui, a farming community in Maunawili and Waianae on Oahu.  It has been a common pattern that displaced Hawaiians on every island have found their way to remote beaches only to be forcibly evicted after a few years.  The Hawaiians are truly a people forcibly removed from the land generation after generation.  In the community that I am from, this past summer over nineteen families were evicted to restore a beach park for visitor and community use.

    More and more, tourism is taking away land from the Hawaiian who is tied to the land by culture, tradition and lifestyle.  As Hawaiians struggle to regain a foothold on the land, tourism remains a major obstacle.

    There is a growing frustration.  This expresses itself in the very visible opposition to resort of related development and the increasing amount of land being openly occupied by indignant Hawaiians.  Almost every large resort development in the last ten years has been opposed by Hawaiian groups or organizations.  Land is the big issue.  Hawaiians have lost too much and they are fighting back.  Dr. George Kanahele of the Waiaha Foundation, an organization that does tourism related consultant work, gave this report of Hawaiian frustration at a tourism conference in November 1992:

    “If one day a molotov cocktail is thrown into the lobby of a resort hotel, none of us should be surprised to learn that it was thrown by a native Hawaiian.”

    When it comes to land base issues, tourism has been cold to the Hawaiian movement for self-governance and nationhood.  Today in Hawaii, we are seeing unprecedented political support for the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-governance.  This past summer, over forty major Hawaiian organizations formed a united coalition to being the serious work of restoring the Hawaiian nation.  It is an action that is being supported by the federal government through a grant of 1.2 million dollars over the next three years.  In political circles, state and congressional politicians are busy drafting legislation to address the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-governance and self-determination.  Recently, a Civil Rights Commission reported titled “Broken Promises” loudly underscored the political injustices that have plagued the history of Hawaiians and called upon the United States to make right those wrongs.

    The emerging awareness of the impact of tourism on Native Hawaiians captured local and international attention when, in August 1989, an international conference on tourism sponsored by local, national and international church groups and organizations took place in Hawaii.  That conference looked at the negative impact of tourism on Native Hawaiians.  The results were published in what came to be called the Hawaiian Declaration of 1989 following is an excerpt from the preamble which serves to outline basic human rights issue in Hawaii.

    “Contrary to the claims of its promoters, tourism, the biggest industry in Hawaii, has not benefited the poor and the oppressed Native Hawaiian people.  Tourism is not an indigenous practice; nor has it been initiated by the Native Hawaiian people.  Rather, tourism promotion and development has been directed and controlled by those who already control wealth and power, nationally and internationally.  Its primary purpose is to make money.

    As such, tourism is a new form of exploitation.  As a consequence, the Native Hawaiian people suffer the most; their culture has been increasingly threatened, their beaches and even their sacred sites have been taken over or intruded upon in order to build tourist resorts and related developments.

    Furthermore, tourism brings and expands the evil of an economy which perpetuates the poverty of Native Hawaiian people and which leads to sexual and domestic violence and substance abuse among the Native Hawaiian people.  In addition, sexism and racism are closely interlinked with tourism. In short, tourism, as it exists today, is detrimental to the life, well-being and spiritual health of native Hawaiian people.  If not checked and transformed, it will bring grave harm, not only to the Native Hawaiian people, but also to all people living in Hawaii.

    The plight of Native Hawaiian people is but one example of the destructive impact that tourism is having on indigenous people in communities around the world.  All is not well in “paradise.”

    Indeed a state of emergency exists in regard to the survival, the well-being and the status of the Native Hawaiian on the one hand and the near extinction of the precious and fragile environment on the other.”

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