Tourism – Pacific

With ‘business as usual’ suspended during the pandemic, Hawai‘i turned to its traditions for answers

Joshua Cooper

The consciousness and creativity of community in Oceania continues to inspire peaceful partnership between people and planet. Despite its many challenges, the pandemic offered an opportunity to reimagine relationships where culture would be central to determining the direction for daily life and sustainable development. With global systems interrupted, indigenous models of sustainability and solidarity re-emerged, combining new technologies with traditional livelihoods. 

Across the Pacific, alongside the many challenges of the pandemic, there was renewed momentum to develop inspiring new ways to address the multiple crises of Covid-19 and climate change. Communities, civil society, and even nations created campaigns and indigenous initiatives across the islands of Hawaiʻi and Oceania. The movement for Moananuiākea centred both on protecting human health and healing the Pacific through a holistic approach. 

One example is the unique Puʻu Kukui (‘Hill of Enlightenment’) Watershed in Hawaiʻi, a large nature preserve extending over 9,000 acres and hosting some of the rarest endangered flora and fauna. Most importantly, Puʻu Kukui is the major water source of many ahupua’a (land divisions) of Maui – Wailuku, Kahului, Kihei, Wailea and Lahaina. The foundation of management is forged in elders’ relationship with nature, creating culturally sensitive approaches to conservation for the indigenous ecosystem as well as monitoring and protecting rare species. Recognized worldwide as a living laboratory of indigenous conservation practices and policies, Puʻu Kukui is researching and sharing results with fellow indigenous peoples around the Pacific and scientists in solidarity. Among other activities, an important initiative with the Polynesian Voyaging Society led to the planting of koa seeds and trees above sacred Honolua Bay, as well as the creation of a star compass, to serve as the centre of a navigational school for future traditional way-finders. 

Niu Now is attempting to restore the status of the coconut – at present, primarily an ornamental amenity for tourists to rest under in the shade – as a nutritional and cultural staple of the islands.

Of course, Hawai‘i is also famous as a tourism hub – a sector not always associated with sustainability. Nevertheless, the islands offer a glimpse of an alternative path. One example is Hilo Hotel, a location operated for decades by a local family providing a new model of a resort growing out of the lava beloved by malihini (guests) and kama’āina (longterm residents local to the land) alike. Indeed, many kama’āina have chosen to stay at the resort when visiting from neighbouring islands of Hawai‘i. Created in the 1950s by Richard Kimi and strongly informed by the values of ohana (family), the hotel was oriented towards less well-off visitors, including from other islands. It served as a centre of hospitality for many decades until it closed its doors during the pandemic. Having been purchased by Soul Community Planet (SCP), the hotel reopened in 2021. Fortunately, the new managers have continued with the Kimi family’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability. 

One hotel will not save the planet. However, Hawai‘i also has its first Kānaka Maoli head of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA), John De Fries, with a lifetime commitment to mālama (meaning ‘to care for, preserve and serve’). De Fries is himself guided by Senator Kenny Brown’s 1973 speech at the Hawai‘i State Legislature recognizing the ancestral wisdom of Kānaka Maoli, living in balance with the natural world and symbiotically serving the planet. He has focused on supporting a post-pandemic recovery and reinvention rooted in Kānaka values, returning to cultural roots and resilience. This is reflected in one of the first initiatives launched in the wake of Covid-19, the Educational Mālama Hawai‘i campaign, an initiative designed to encourage ‘mindful travellers’ to engage meaningfully with the culture and values of Hawai‘i, promoting richer experiences while also protecting public health and wellbeing. 

The generous giving forward spirit of mālama is reinforced by many other initiatives: one is the partnership between the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and travel2change to create a Kaiāulu Ho’okipa Cohort, bringing together a dozen Kānaka and kama’āina ideas and initiatives to redefine the relationship of tourism in Hawai‘i. The cohort serves as a platform to promote a reverence for both the people of Hawai‘i and their unique environment, shifting the relationship from extraction and exploitation to mutual respect and sustainability. One example of its work is the Leahi Millennium Peace Garden (LMPG), situated at the iconic Leahi (Diamond Head) overlooking the famed Waikiki Beach and framing Honolulu. LPMG now serves as a gateway to a new approach for Waikiki and all of Hawai‘i, based on generosity and giving back, hosting outdoor discussions and dialogues connected with direct actions to mālama’āina (‘caring for the land’), as well as place-based education and courses covering human rights, climate justice, regenerative economy and sustainable development rooted in Kānaka Maoli philosophy and principles. 

While tourism has transformed even the most sacred tree, the indigenous Niu coconut palm, the seeds have been planted to restore it to its rightful place on the islands of Hawai‘i. Niu Now is a University of Hawai‘i-funded initiative seeking to support food sovereignty and freedom. Recognizing the role of the Niu as the tree of life, Niu Now is attempting to restore the status of the coconut – at present, primarily an ornamental amenity for tourists to rest under in the shade – as a nutritional and cultural staple of the islands. Already, organizers have set up a nursery to germinate seedlings in Hawai‘i: over 11,000 square feet of dryland forest, comprised of a variety of species of Niu. Niu Now is dedicated to the appreciation of all that is possible from the Niu tree. Besides providing food and nutrition, it holds many amazing abilities and is the source of the fibrous rope that binds Hokule’a canoes together – the very craft that once voyaged across the waters of the Pacific, using only the ancestral wisdom of the wayfinders to navigate the vast ocean. 

For all its challenges, the pandemic brought a pause to the often frenetic pace of tourism and development on the islands, offering a moment to take stock of Hawai‘i’s ancestral wisdom and indigenous traditions. Here, as elsewhere in the Pacific, these perspectives point the way for a more sustainable future – one that, with the right approach and a grounding in mālama, the tourism industry can support rather than obstruct.

Photo: A Lono to Kū ceremony of a hula honouring the changing of seasons and the Hawaiian Gods that are tied to those seasons. Credit: Kapulei Flores