Is Responsible Travel to Hawaii Fun?

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In 2019, when a record 10.4 million people visited the islands, a breaking point was reached. By the time the pandemic hit, locals were relieved to have their home to themselves.

In June, the Hawaii Tourism Authority rocked the tourism industry when it announced that, for the first time in more than two decades, it would not award the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, which has been responsible for selling Hawaii to the world for 120 years, its multi-year contract for marketing the state.

Instead, the contract was given to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a 23-year-old organization that believes tourism should benefit Native Hawaiians and the state’s residents above all else. The H.V.C.B. responded by fighting the decision, arguing that the process for determining who should get the contract was unfair. In October, the organizations agreed that they would work together, and the H.V.C.B contract was extended by six months.

Kūhiō Lewis, the president and chief executive of the C.N.H.A., told me that the fact that the organization received the contract indicates a shift in how people are thinking about tourism.

“Visitors want authentic, they want real, but they don’t even know what that looks like,” Mr. Lewis said. “This shift allows people and our culture to be the center of the industry. Hawaii is one of the biggest tourism markets in the country and could potentially be a model for what a Native-run model of tourism looks like, one that gives more than it takes.”

While some voices on social media might leave potential visitors to Hawaii with the impression that they’re not wanted — after all, aloha means both hello and goodbye, I’ve been told — the truth is that most residents do want tourism, as long as it is respectful and thoughtful.

What I learned is that respectful and thoughtful travel can actually be fun — and enlightening. Not only did I kayak beneath a waterfall, wake to a mooing cow and jump 15 feet into the open water, I also ate food grown and harvested locally, shopped at local stores and learned ways to keep supporting those businesses even after I left. I’m not ashamed to say that most of my holiday gifts will be coming from Pop-Up Makeke, the online marketplace created by the C.N.H.A. during the pandemic to keep local businesses going.

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