Hawaii & Alaska
People enjoying the beach and ocean on a beautiful sunny day on Kaanapali beach.Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

HI - Hawaii's 'overtourism' becomes growing debate as West Maui reopens for visitors

The reopening sparked outrage among some residents.

West Maui began reopening Sunday to visitors just two months after a wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina.

The reopening did not come without outrage from some residents, many of whom signed a petition to delay the reopening as families continue to struggle to "find shelter, provide for their children's education, and cope with emotional trauma," according to the petition.

Homes have been flattened and are completely inhabitable. Businesses have been decimated. Some loved ones remain unaccounted for and residents have been grieving the loss of 97 people who died in the tragedy.

The petition has received more than 10,000 signatures.

The fact that tourism is resuming so soon around the outskirts of a town made unrecognizable by the wildfires has reignited an ongoing debate about Hawaii's reliance on tourism.

"There is just not a lot of activities like there usually is for these people to do, so a lot of people are wondering, why do they want to come here?" said Jordan Ruidas, a community organizer and resident.

Tourism is the No. 1 driver of that state's economy, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority, and businesses across the island have been impacted by the lack of visitors since the Aug. 8 wildfires.

But some residents link tourism and its historical links to colonialism with many of the issues plaguing the Islands, including lack of access to clean water, the housing crisis, and pollution and destruction of Hawaiian lands.

"It's a great business for Hawaii, but the difficult thing for us here is that there is not a street, a community, a county. There's nowhere that you can hide from tourism in Hawaii," said Susie Pu, a hotel manager on Maui.

She continued, "The most important thing is that we find a balance between the Hawaiian culture and tourism. Hawaiian people need to be benefiting from tourism equally. And I do not see that."

Hawaii before tourism

Hawaii didn't always rely on tourism as its main source of income.

According to research from the University of Hawaii, Hawaiian society was self-sustaining and run in cooperative, extended ohana -- or family -- that each manned subdivisions of land.

Native Hawaiians were recorded to have been living "well above subsistence levels, with extensive time available for cultural activities, sports, and games" before their long period of isolation from outsiders came to an end, the University of Hawaii found.

Contact with the outside world in the 1770s changed Hawaii drastically. Deaths caused a massive wave of fatalities, leading to a 90% decline in the Native Hawaiian population, according to research from the National Academy of Medicine.

The Hawaiian Kingdom and monarchy were formed during this period of change, adopting Western political strategies to settle disputes between competing Hawaiian states. The Islands also became integrated into the global market, losing its past self-sustaining system.

PHOTO: Photographic print of Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii (1838-1917) the last monarch and only queen regnant of the Kingdom of Hawaii, dated 1917.
Photographic print of Liliuokalani, Queen of Hawaii (1838-1917) the last monarch and only queen regnant of the Kingdom of Hawaii, dated 1917.Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This drastic social, economic, and political change was marked by a shift to sugar production when a treaty with the U.S. exempted sugar firms on the island from high tariffs.

"The story of sugar is really, really important because in a lot of ways it was the wealthy and powerful corporations that promoted sugar to the kingdom that really were responsible for seeking markets in the United States," Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, the dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, said.

"That's all a part of the story of not just the rise, but the fall of the [Hawaiian] kingdom," said Osorio.

As production expanded, American corporations producing sugar on the Islands sought to keep prices high and labor costs lower, hiring cheaper immigrant labor and lobbying for an immigration policy that would allow them to do so, historians say.

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