While Maui is burning, all people care about are their vacations. When Puerto Rico had no electricity after being decimated by a hurricane, all people cared about were their vacations. This is how tourism and the framing of occupied land as “paradise” dehumanizes native populations.
devilette17, commentator on X, August 11, 2023
On Wednesday, August 9, satellites first detected the Maui wildfires. Over the next few days, the flames moved fast across the island. By the next week, the area of Lahaina, on the western edge of Maui, was entirely decimated, with over 2,170 aces burned and a death toll of 115. These wildfires have since joined the list of the deadliest in US history.
Like many other climate-vulnerable places worldwide, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have many natural resources and Indigenous communities—all of which were colonized and degraded to meet the demands of Westernization. Industrial farming techniques replaced traditional subsistence farming. Deforestation and rapid construction to support tourism destroyed thousands of acres of natural habitats and sacred ecosystems. All of this has changed Hawaii’s climate and put the islands at high risk for extreme climate events—including wildfires.
Maui’s Mayor, Richard Bissen, described the island’s current state as a war zone. “Cars in the street, doors were open, and things were melted to the ground,” he said. “Most structures no longer exist.”
Wildfires are not a climate disaster most Hawaiians ever expected to deal with in their lifetimes. The island state is most at risk for coastal and inland flooding and tsunamis due to its location in the Ring of Fire and rising sea levels. The threat of these events is familiar. Wildfires are not.
As Maui recovers, how could this be an opportunity to shift Hawaii’s entire economy and tourism from one that is extractive to one that is regenerative?
To fully understand the cause of Maui’s wildfires, and therefore the potential opportunities—we must first understand the island’s Indigenous history, some of which starts in Lahaina on Maui’s western coast.
A Brief History of Lahaina
In the early 1800s, Lahaina was designated the capital of the kingdom of Hawaii by King Kamehameha for 50 years before it was relocated to Honolulu. “Lahaina was always seen as an important bread basket of the island of Maui and central place in the island,” says Samuel Kaleikoa Ka’eo, professor at the University of Hawaii Maui College, in an interview with Democracy Now!.
When the Bayonet Constitution was signed (under duress) by King Kalakaua in 1887, the trajectory of Hawaii changed. The constitution undermined the King’s power and took away the rights of Hawaii’s native people. It granted voting rights to Europeans, Americans, and land-owning people who had lived there for at least three years. This began the era of political disenfranchisement in Hawaii, the control of policy and land by foreign forces.
In the wake of the constitution’s signing, the islands swiftly moved from subsistence farming to plantations growing cash crops to be sold and exported. By the late 20th century, the landscape shifted again to support tourism, making much of Hawaii’s labor and economy dependent on out-of-state money.
In the 1960s, Lahaina rapidly transformed into a resort area. “The transformation of the environment from traditional native plants…was first replaced with sugar and [then] unfortunately…replaced with very wealthy so-called mansions that were built,” says Ka’eo.
These wildfires illustrate the need for a rebalance in Hawaii’s ecology and its labor and tourism industry.
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The Return of the Tourism Industry
In Lahaina—and across Hawaii—there lies a deep-rooted history of dispossession. “Unfortunately and horrifically, our people who have lived there since time immemorial are suffering because of the consequences…from outside foreign forces,” says Ka’eo.
Zoning laws and land use regulations spurred on by the tourism industry made Hawaii the most expensive US state in which to live. Housing for local Native Hawaiians has become unaffordable, and they are the demographic group most likely to be unhoused. While the argument can be made that tourism brings jobs to the state, it isn’t straightforward. Various tourism-related businesses employ Native Hawaiians, but often in only the lowest-paying service jobs. Without livable wages, high housing costs have caused many Native Hawaiians to leave their homeland behind.
Between 2001 and 2022, Hawaii lost over 2.9 percent of its tree canopy, cleared to make way for lavish resorts and experiences for visitors. The native population was moved further away from cultural traditions, such as using forest plants for medicinal purposes or practicing ahupua’a, a holistic system of land management. Hawaii, up until these wildfires, existed in the minds of the outside world as a paradise in which the sky and water is always blue and smiling sun-tanned people dance at luaus. This perceived paradise has led to Hawaii experiencing over-tourism—including a post-pandemic boom that caused residents to beg people not to come.
But now, just weeks after the devastating wildfires, Maui is calling for tourists to return to support the economy. If the island is to recover, it must return to the very thing that caused its deterioration.
“It kind of feels like COVID again, where nobody’s making money and they’re just trying to survive,” said Sne Patel, a vacation rental manager, in an interview with NPR. With many locals still rebuilding and tourists’ uncertainty about traveling to Maui, a mass exodus of labor and locals is certainly troubling. The Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates that West Maui is losing close to close to $9 million dollars a day since the start of the wildfires.
While recovery is underway, this can be a moment to start with a bottom-up approach that centers Hawaii’s Indigenous and local population, encourages land stewardship, and does away with the notion that its islands are a green utopia ripe for the consumption of outsiders.
Although it is an American state, Hawaii is often treated and ideologically viewed as territories such as Puerto Rico. “Though they are across the continent from each other, devastated by different disasters, these islands’ remoteness and their particular relationship to the United States determine the aid they receive in these moments of crisis,” writes Paola Rose-Aquino for The Atlantic. Like Puerto Rico, Hawaii has experienced settler colonialism—a distinct kind of colonialism that relates explicitly to Indigenous people in which foreign powers aid in the erasure of Native people, impose control, and take Native land in perpetuity. Native Hawaii was commodified to create a “false paradise” that centered outsiders and fit the mainland’s perception of what a breezy set of islands in the sea should be.
As climate change continues to impact vulnerable places like Hawaii, we must remember and consider the factors that led to the Maui wildfires. Deliberate and continued environmental degradation and the legacy of settler colonialism will continue to put us in harm’s way. These wildfires illustrate the need for a rebalance in Hawaii’s ecology and its labor and tourism industry.
Tourism can be the catalyst to shift how we think about and engage with Hawaii’s natural world and local people. Opportunities and models for sustainable development and regenerative tourism rooted in conservation and economic justice can coexist.
As an economic backbone for places like Hawaii and entire countries around the world, tourism can support green growth by moving away from enabling waste and extravagance to being a vehicle that promotes conservation and cultural heritage.
While recovery is underway, this can be a moment to start with a bottom-up approach that centers Hawaii’s Indigenous and local population, encourages land stewardship, and does away with the notion that its islands are a green utopia ripe for the consumption of outsiders. Even more importantly, we must focus tourism on climate action in a way that can make the sector more adaptive. That looks like working toward a tourism industry that supports decarbonization, such as the transition to net-zero travel.
As an economic backbone for places like Hawaii and entire countries around the world, tourism can support green growth by moving away from enabling waste and extravagance to being a vehicle that promotes conservation and cultural heritage. Moving Hawaii’s economy away from tourism altogether is not on the near horizon, but a shift in the existing tourism industry is a start to a better, more sustainable future.