Hawaii’s residents are speaking out against tourists behaving badly

When visitors think of Hawaii and social media, they usually think of capturing the kind

When visitors think of Hawaii and social media, they usually think of capturing the kind of images that make the state a popular hashtag on Instagram: beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets and picturesque landscapes.

For Hawaii’s residents, it’s far different. It’s a woman proclaiming that she’s from New York as she allegedly assaults a resident of Nanakuli in western Oahu. It’s a visitor without a mask screaming and then reportedly spitting on a kupuna, a Native Hawaiian elder, in a supermarket. It’s tourists blocking highways to take photos, and reportedly refusing to move when asked.

These videos have gone viral for a reason: Many of Hawaii’s residents are rightfully upset over tourists behaving badly. 

“Your vacation is my home, I live here,”  Nalani Gasper, the Nanakuli resident who was reportedly assaulted by the self-proclaimed New Yorker, told KITV. “… I understand New York is very different in your ways, and that’s fine. But [assault is] not, we don’t do disrespect.”

Hawaii’s success as a destination is a double-edged sword, because the state’s economy is dependent on visitors. In 2019, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that it was “the largest single source of private capital for Hawaii’s economy.” The 10,424,995 visitors that came to the state that year spent $17.75 billion statewide. January 2019 alone saw 820,621 visitors who spent $1.62 billion across the state.

A 2018 report by the state of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) Research and Economic Analysis Division found the accommodation and food services industry is the top employment sector for the state, comprising 13.6 percent of Hawaii’s workforce.

That dependency on tourism became even more clear when the state shut down to visitors in March 2020 because of COVID-19. By mid-2020, the reality of Hawaii tourism’s pandemic-driven downturn became palpable. The state’s unemployment rate peaked at 21.9% in April and May 2020. Compare that to May 2019, when it was at 2.5 percent.


In January 2021, the percentage of visitors by air was down 80% compared with January 2020. The Hawaii Tourism Authority released a January 2021 report stating that spending by the 171,976 visitors that month was down to $383.3 million, an immense decrease compared to January 2019.

Hawaii reopened to tourism in October 2020 with the Safe Travels program, requiring visitors to have a negative COVID-19 test before arrival, and to file paperwork and be certified in advance for entry to the state.

Even with those precautions in place, many residents are wary. In a 2020 survey by the Hawaii Tourism Authority on “Attitudes Toward Re-Opening Hawaii to Tourism,” approximately 65% of residents said they agreed strongly or somewhat that “people from outside Hawai’i should not be visiting right now.” Approximately 62% disagreed with the statement, “I am confident that state and county governments can safely re-open my island to visitors from outside the state of Hawaii.”

Hawaii is no stranger to pandemics decimating its native population. Measles may have even helped bring down the Hawaiian monarchy; King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu died in London of the disease, contracted on an 1824 royal visit to the city. And the effects of the islands’ last smallpox outbreak in 1881 are still fresh in many residents’ minds, tales of which have been passed down through generations.

One major concern for residents when considering tourism’s return is the welfare of their families, and especially kupuna (elders). Multigenerational living is prevalent in Hawaii, and the state has the highest proportion of multigenerational households in the United States. If one person is infected with COVID-19, the entire family — including the more vulnerable elderly members — may be exposed.

Most hospitals in Hawaii have limited capacity and can be easily overrun. For many locals, fear battles with freedom and the positive economic impact of tourism to the state.

“Our identity as a place became displaced when tourism was not here, and we were forced to really reflect on how tourism savagely and unapologetically takes resources, space and energy from us (our local communities) as if it were entitled to it,” says Pomai Weigert, statewide adviser and liaison for the Hawaii Agritourism Association.

“As if we owed tourism our aloha, our culture(s), stories, land and experiences — things that are culturally/historically significant and sacred to us — because it brought in so much money and ‘opportunity,’” Weigert continued. “And we’ve done it for so long that we just accepted it as our life here. Maybe not even accept, just something we live with, without knowing any different.”

Having had a taste of a tourist-free state, some residents have come to prefer the peace. Some much-visited areas, like Hanauma Bay, saw marine life return, rejuvenated by the lack of tourists as natural areas recovered. Residents returned to places like Haena State Park, which had been “loved to death.”

“From a local lens, it was so incredibly peaceful not having tourists here,” said Maui resident Weigert. “… Places we’ve stopped going to because they had become crowded with tourists could finally be ours again.”

“I know we need the tourism, but it was nice not having the roads choked up with rental cars, the beaches not crowded and smelling like sunscreen. Hawaii needs another industry to boost its economy,” Jason Leanio wrote in response to a Honolulu Civil Beat post on Hawaii’s summer tourism season. “Until then tourists need to abide by the mandates we have in place to protect the people of Hawaii. I’m all for opening up everything but with restrictions in place. It’s completely doable if we were all just considerate of each other.”

Some Hawaii residents are trying to reach out to tourists before they book that trip to their state. In a viral thread, Twitter user @ivyschampagne wrote about why it was so important to protect the people of Hawaii, and why people should not travel to the state right now.

“The ignorance of the tourists is both unknowing and [willfully] supported by their entitlement and the capitalist tourism industry which puts profits over the health of Hawaii,” Oahu resident and activist Kawena Kapahu, whose Twitter handle is @Kue_Kawena, told SFGATE. “Social media offers essentially the one and only chance to reach these tourists/colonizers before they arrive in our islands and bring their harm with them.”

“Social media allows us advocates for the community to reach these people with less resources at our disposal while we compete against the tourism industry which has millions to encourage tourists to come harm our communities,” he continued. “Social media is our chance as organizers, activists, and concerned community members to reach out to the humanity of these plague tourists. An attempt to get them to understand the harm they inflict on our community by risking our lives for their vacations.”

Natasha Bourlin is a travel-loving, Hawai’i Island-based freelance writer who’s been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, AFAR media, Time Out, USAToday.com and more.