Hawaii is a popular tourist destination, but it’s often at the expense of its indigenious communities — particularly the approximate 156,000 Kānaka Maoli, the Hawaiians native to the land.

One of the major problems of Hawaii is the idealization of the state and how it sits between tourism and the military. This romanticized idea of Hawaii hides the violent realities that many of Hawaii’s Indigenous communities continue to face even today.

But now, Hawaii's Indigenous communities are working to educate settlers and tourists alike on Hawaii and its colonial past and present and raising awareness about the state of their country. 

In 2015, Hawaii received 8.6 million arrivals, most of them Americans from the lower 48 states, who spent $15 billion that year alone. But tourists and visitors rarely consider what processes took place to enable such a mass tourist presence to exist within Hawaii.

In 2015, Hawaii received 8.6 million arrivals, most of them Americans from the lower 48 states, who spent $15 billion that year alone. But tourists and visitors rarely consider what processes took place to enable such a mass tourist presence to exist within Hawaii.

For example, the displacement of Indigenous communities to make way for tourist hotels. But the tourism industry also does something else: it covers up the intense military presence that Hawaii is forced to endure.

“Hawaii is captured by the twin forces of militarism and tourism,” Kyle Kajihiro — an activist and fourth-generation migrant of Japanese ancestry — told Fodors Travel

Hawaii is often perceived as a playground and outpost of a foreign power. Now, Native Hawaiians are using the travel guides to bring attention to the military presence found there, which hurts the Indigenous communities who still reside there. 

Together with Native Hawaiian Terry Keko’olani, Kajihiro leads “demilitarization tours” — or DeTours — to historic points of U.S. intervention on the islands.

This draws attention to the military's role in overthrowing the kingdom over a century ago, as well as its use of the islands as a strategic linchpin “to extend the American empire across the Pacific,” Kajihiro said.

A 25th Infantry Division CH-47 Chinook carries a sling load with a M777 Howitzer "in preparation for a capabilities demonstration" for Lt. Gen. S K Saini, Vice Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army on Schofield Barracks East Range, Hawaii, on Oct. 19, 2020.

After Hawaii was invaded by the U.S. military and its statehood was asserted in 1959, Hawaii’s economy shifted from being dominated by sugar plantations and the military to tourism and the military. 

“The tourism industry provides the mask to conceal the violence of this arrangement — and to naturalize the military’s presence,” Kajihiro said. “Militarization is everywhere in Hawaii, yet it hides in plain sight,” he added.

He refers to the 80,000 active duty and civilian personnel serving every branch of the US military on 11 bases spread across every county in Hawaii. This cost the state $7.8 billion in 2015 alone, according to the Hawaii Defense Economy Project

The military industry is the second most exploitative industry on the islands — but tourism still leads the way.

“There is this incredible sense of entitlement that white Americans in particular feel at being at home in Hawaii,” Native Hawaiian scholar, Maile Arvin, told Fodors Travel Guide in 2015.

This is due to the veneer of tourism — it makes leisure travel seem innocent enough. In particular, Hawaii is sold as an escape for tourists who want to leave responsibility at home. 

This is due to the veneer of tourism — it makes leisure travel seem innocent enough. In particular, Hawaii is sold as an escape for tourists who want to leave responsibility at home. 

DeTours grew from Kajihiro and Keko’olani hosting friends or colleagues in Hawaii. When these friends or colleagues arrived in Hawaii, Kajihiro explained, they “switched into tourist mode, where Hawaii is the tropical playground where people enjoy sun, surf, and have no problems.”

From this, the project grew informally through word-of-mouth — now it caters to delegations traveling from around the world, as well as local student groups and activists.

DeTours “reveals a lot of unpleasant things,” Kajihiro said. For example, one of the sites is a hill that sits over the Navy’s massive underground fuel tank complex, which leaks jet fuel near Honolulu’s main source of drinking water. For this reason, Kajihiro calls DeTours “an anti-tourism tour.” 

Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, a professor at the University of Hawaii, published a book in 2019 called “Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaii”, which borrows its name from the demilitarized tours.

It’s “designed to try to address a type of genre missing about writing about Hawaii and place,” Gonzalez said to Fodors. The book seeks to inform tourists that they are not entitled to all things Hawaiian.

The Hawaii of their imagination, she says, is destroying the Hawaii of Kānaka Maoli.

The Hawaii of their imagination, she says, is destroying the Hawaii of Kānaka Maoli.

Hōkūlani K. Aikau, a professor at the University of Hawaii, explained this idea further to Fodors Travel Guide. “The multi-billion global tourism industry says that if you can afford to travel to a place, you have a right to all that is there.

Vintage Postcard - Moonlight in Honolulu, Hawaii / Photo courtesy of 'vintagehalloweencollector' / CC BY-ND 2.0

For people visiting places like Hawaii, where the concept of “Aloha” has been used to give ‘guests’ unrestricted access to everything, not all places are openly available to everyone.”

Both the DeTours tours, and the guidebook, are hoping to reach those who intend to become better guests.

All of these efforts share the same goal: to repatriate Indigenous lands to Kānaka Maoli.

In particular, the book offers alternative itineraries for those wishing to visit Hawaii with an equitable exchange in mind. The book “is more than just a critique,” Aikau said. “It’s also a series of instructions for how to contribute to decolonization.”

For those who attend a DeTour tour, Kajihiro described participants’ responses as ranging from painful to empowering, unsettled to inspired. 

Through tour guides and literature, Indigenous communities of Hawaii are working to reclaim Hawaii from colonization and protect their islands.

Through tour guides and literature, Indigenous communities of Hawaii are working to reclaim Hawaii from colonization and protect their islands.

They educate tourists and settlers on the detrimental effects that tourism — as well as the military — has had on the islands for the Native Hawaiian population, which includes approximately 7,000 homeless Hawaiians. 

What’s more: it’s working. More people are attending these tours, and becoming aware of Hawaii's violent past, and colonized present — and change looks possible for Hawaii. 

A version of this story originally ran in The Water Edition of The Goodnewspaper in October 2020.
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