As of late March 2021, COVID-19 has taken approximately 2,796,561 lives, devastated global economies, and revealed many broken systems that perpetuate social inequality. U.S. studies have acknowledged the links between poor socioeconomic status and the likelihood of contracting COVID-19, which tends to disproportionately affect people of color. On a global scale, countries with large Indigenous populations, who typically experience a high degree of marginalization, are made more vulnerable during a global pandemic. 

Further, many countries are grappling with the seemingly impossible task of keeping their economies afloat during lockdowns. With government calls to the public to “stay at home” and avoid non-essential travel, the pandemic has created a particular burden on economies that largely depend on the tourism industry – such as Hawai’i. Hawai’i bears the weight of the intersection of these two truths: Indigenous populations being at high risk for COVID-19, and a large tourism industry.

“Taking a break from reality” 

With the U.S. ranking #1 on the COVID-19 Worldometer with the highest number of cases and deaths, many “pandemic-fatigued” Americans are travelling to Hawai’i to escape quarantine laws and to “take a break” from reality. For Hawaiians, the influx of mainland American tourists vacationing on their lands is not new. Since Hawai’i was declared a U.S. state in 1959, it has had a strong escapist brand that appeals to the American public as a safe, paradisiacal, and exotic destination. 

Escapism is defined as “the desire to abandon a difficult present for an ideal alternative, which often manifests in times of social, political, economic or cultural crisis.” COVID-19 has created such conditions that have fueled privileged Americans to flee to other countries and as a result, has posed a massive risk to locals. In November of 2020, Governor of Hawai’i David Ige introduced a new law that allowed out-of-state visitors to bypass a 14-day quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arrival in Hawai’i. Over 10,000 visitors arrived on the first day, and as Hawaiian journalist, Anela Akoina explained, “At this rate, if even one of 1,000 of those travelers has a false-negative test, this could mean roughly 300 additional cases per month.” 

According to the state health department, there have been over 380 travel-related infections in Hawai’i since the testing program was launched. Hawaiian police reported that on the first 4 days of the program, they issued 4,500 warnings to tourists for violating COVID-19 rules. Hawaiians are being put at a higher risk for contracting the virus, and the overwhelmed healthcare system and state are not prepared to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases. For Hawaiians, this is another example of how they are “routinely exploited in the name of economic and colonial interests.” COVID-19 has exacerbated the complicated relationship between Hawaiian tourism and colonialism. 

Colonial legacy of Travel & Tourism in Hawai’i

Colonialism in Hawai’i began in 1778 when James Cook was commissioned to find new territories to build wealth for the British Empire. He settled on the island of Kauai and brought with him European diseases that decimated the Indigenous population. The independent nation of Hawai’i was governed by a unified monarchy and, to this day, has never relinquished sovereignty or lands. In 1893, white businessmen conspired with the U.S. government and staged a coup d’etat to illegally overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom and establish their own “provisional government.” Although Hawaiians resisted, the 1898 Spanish-American war positioned Hawai’i as a useful naval base and refueling station for the American military, which led to it becoming the USA’s 50th state. 

The legacy of colonialism in Hawai’i is evident through the ongoing use of the state as a military base and as a destination spot for mainland Americans. The economic shift to tourism has led to the construction of the “colonial fantasy” of Hawai’i that appeals to white tourists. Native Hawaiian feminist scholar Maile Arvin writes that there is a false image of Natives as “smiling caricatures who are ready, willing and able to serve at the beck and call of the white tourist.” Colonial narratives portray Native women as commodities and appropriate their “hang loose” worldview on peace into a commercialized motto for carelessness. Tourists buy into this parody, turning meaningful cultural practices and places into objects of consumption. 

European colonization gave birth to the “western travel narrative,” Travel writer Bani Amor explains, which is a trip to a “fantasy land, that the settler can escape to when the travails of civilized life grow too taxing.” This narrative, sold by airlines and cruise ships, is all about escape and well-deserved indulgence. Additionally, privilege shapes the realities of who gets to travel, and whose lands are traveled to. In the context of COVID-19, some Americans have the privilege to escape the pandemic, but also “escape into a state of mind while participating in the destruction of a host-people in a native place.” While Hawaiians are taking extreme precautions to protect their families by avoiding leaving their homes and traveling, Americans are “traipsing around on vacation.” Honolulu resident Khara Jaboba-Carolus calls this “billionaire bunker mentality,” where the disregard for the impact on the host place is outweighed by the travelers’ need for leisure during a crisis.

Lastly, because in the colonial imagination Hawai’i was “discovered” by Europeans, there is a deep-rooted white savior complex that ignites a sense of entitlement to Hawaiian land on account of the U.S. “helping” Hawai’i become “civilized.” Under this logic, Natives should be grateful for imposed statehood on Hawai’i, and because it is a U.S. state, Americans “believe they’ve been afforded all-inclusive consent access to the islands.” The dependence on the tourism industry reaffirms this narrative because the economy has been shaped to essentially rely upon the American tourist who “saves” the economy. For many Hawaiians, the tourism industry being the state’s largest industry is a “double-edged sword;” there is an incentive to maintain the paradisiacal image because many locals depend on the industry, but they also find themselves displaced and subjugated by it.

Effects of Colonialism 

The legacy of colonialism in Hawai’i does not just exist within harmful narratives and cultural appropriation, but also in the poor socioeconomic conditions of the state. As a result of reliance on the tourism industry, Hawai’i has the highest cost of living in the U.S while also holding the record for the nation’s lowest minimum wage and the second-highest homeless population. Although the tourism industry does create jobs, it has been reported that 48% of families do not earn the minimum household budget to survive, which leads to many impoverished locals living in multigenerational houses – making Hawaiians more vulnerable to COVID-19. The displacement of Natives for the maintenance of the paradisical image of Hawai’i, over-consumption of resources, and lack of state help reaffirms that “the island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.” 

COVID-19, “the Great Exacerbator” 

Americans vacationing in Hawai’i during COVID-19 adds another layer of risk on an already vulnerable population. On March 20th of 2020, Molokai residents led a demonstration to oppose American tourism, holding signs that read “Please keep your distance ocean length.” Locals had felt that Governor Ige’s response prioritized tourism dollars over their health and safety, and put pressure on the state to shut down travel before the pandemic escalated in Hawai’i. In October of 2020, after the introduction of the new law allowing visitors to skip the 14-day quarantine, the island of Kauai went from having no active infections to at least 84 new cases. This led to the island’s first COVID-19 related death, Ron Clark, who worked as a tour driver, and demonstrates “the difficulty of preserving public health – even on an isolated island, when economic recovery depends on travel.” 

What Hawaiians expressed concern about in the early months of COVID-19 quickly became a reality. Honolulu resident Khara Jaboba-Carolus recalls a trip to a bare-shelved Target where she had to compete with tourists for basic necessities. Additionally, Kauai police commented on the lack of hospitals and equipment: “our healthcare system is ill-equipped to handle the influx of people who will need beds and ventilators.” Natives are more likely to have poorer health conditions, less access to health care, live in high-density housing or multi-generational houses with elders, and are the most likely to be in the service industry. Hawaiians are being put in a bind, having to choose between keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19 and being able to afford to maintain their households. Evidently, travel and tourism during COVID-19 is “the ultimate threat to Native Hawaiians.” However, beyond the pandemic, it is important to understand the power dynamics of travel, privilege, and colonialism that shape the tourism industry in general. Travel does not have to be an exploitative relationship; some Native Hawaiians are reclaiming and decolonizing tourism by running tours that point to historic points of U.S. imperialism on the islands, and counter the narrative of Hawai’i as a “free for all.” Hōkūlani K. Aikau, a Hawaiian professor, explains, “the multibillion-dollar global tourism industry says that if you can afford to travel to a place, you have a right to all that is there… The concept of Aloha has been used to give ‘guests’ unrestricted access to everything.” Instead, their tours encourage awareness of the transaction between traveler and land and encourage us to re-think what an ethical relationship with travel could look like. In sum, folks who have the privilege to travel during and post COVID-19 may unconsciously reaffirm colonial narratives if it comes from a place of entitlement, consumption, and prioritizing leisure travel over the well-being and safety of the host people.