Blue skies accented by just the right amount of dreamy puff clouds afforded a beautiful day for sailing and snorkeling on a deep blue ocean not more than a mile from the coast of Oahu's touristy stretch of controlled beaches along Waikiki. The view of the skyline and its foreground ocean made me think of the people who made this place and make this place home. We've visited the Hawaiian Islands several times, first as tourists but later as visitors with good friends and family who are lucky to call Hawaii home. Everyone who visits the islands eventually develops a favorite beach, a favorite island, a favorite activity, yet those I speak with and those for whom I plan travel have never mentioned the people who live there and the local communities built under severe land constraints and are a challenge for natural resource planning. It's a heck of a place to call home.
As a city planner on the mainland, my job was to help the development community assume the vision of a city as part of their vision for new development. Many American cities struggle with growth-many more struggle with a lack of new housing, jobs and opportunity. Both situations can be hard to manage. Hawaii's well known Waikiki and the greater city of Honolulu are no exception to this quandary, as an island that has limited space and precious natural and endangered resources that interface with the built environment built on tourism. The island attracts tourists because...well...it's an island and the most remote island on earth, so who wouldn't want to experience such exotic mystery. Marketing agents across the world in tourism, in our minds, in Costco, are all attuned to the magic of the islands and they all draw a picture that has come to be known as the jpeg for vacation. However, I think there are a few very important things missing from the brochures that beg further consideration for any tourist arriving in the islands to soak in the sandy beaches and the never-ending sun.
Who lives in Hawaii? Hawaii is home to just under 1.5 million people and a plethora of ethnic backgrounds to provide color and "oneness" to the state's most populated islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii. roughly 38 percent of the island is made of people of asian descent while only 10% of the people are known as native Hawaiian. It is many of these natives, though, who are fighting to keep Hawaii's cultural, natural, and sacred religious places whole (the places we see and appreciate only as magical island paradise talking points) and that is a daunting task in an over-touristed location like Hawaii. Visits to Maui's mountainous upcountry with sweeping 360 ocean views or to the leeward side of Oahu through the valley of the eastern edge of the 838m Keahiakahoe Volcano to Kailua provide a much different view of the islands and the people who live and work in paradise. Street corners and pick-up trucks with Hawaiian tribal flags dot the cityscape as many natives fight the enormous telescope project on Mauna Kea (a mountain taller tan Everest when measured from its base beneath the ocean). Check out the latest news on their battle and why it's important as a tourist to understand the context of the locations we visit.
What are you missing when you spend all your time in Waikiki? In my opinion, a lot, but it's not entirely wrong that all the tourists are harbored into one or two locations. The natives, while almost always 100% aloha in spirit and mind, aren't always that keen on having a deluge of tourists spring up in their smaller local communities. Tourism in Hawaii is not as much about finding the small secret nooks and crannies of special local communities the same way we experience it in Europe. It's become more about easy money in a place that's easy to sell. Oahu's famous Waikiki, more realistically described as the southern beach tip of Oahu, is bound by a commercial luxury shopping strip like Vegas without the margarita necklaces, and a stretch of controlled ocean wall pools across the street from the area's biggest hotels. It makes up almost half of the hotel room inventory of all of Hawaii's vacation inventory which stands at about 80,000 (as of 2018) when we include managed timeshares and rentals. This means that the development community will continue to feed the State's tourism industry with more pleas for more hotel rooms, and on small islands with finite resources like land, and well...WATER...we've got to assume the carrying capacity for such endeavors will eventually fail the islands in a disastrous way.
Can Hawaii support all the tourists? Our extended family and friends live in Kailua, and have resided in Kailua since World War II. Having raised her family there, my 102-year old (like a) grandmother still calls Kailua home and so does her daughter. She spent a few decades in Denver, but moved back to Kailua nearly a decade ago. It's a beautiful town appreciated through the sacred corridor of tall and steep volcanic-watershed mountains that we hiked and from which we could view the changing landscape of Kailua and Kaneohe Bay. Major highway reconstruction is underway from a series of roadway failures due to natural resource disasters, limiting roadway capacity and making trip timing a trick if you want to get to the windward side of the island.. These issues might be helpful in actually keeping the throngs of tourists busy in the much more accessible area of Waikiki and away from the quieter residential communities on Eastern Oahu. For every vacationer and local alike, there is still a most critical question of limited resources on the islands. Our hosts tended backyard bountiful mango trees and we feasted on fresh fruit for a week. We showered in a private shower outside, and we were more conscientious of every flush and every time we turned on a faucet. Resources are not infinite on the islands, and for food they can't grow locally it's very expensive to import. Most tourists are simply not aware of their impact as users of the location they are visiting. This goes for any destination set up to cater to the masses, and to the luxury masses this is even more of an issue. There is a lot to be said for learning to vacation off the grid, to explore a new found commune with nature, in order for wealthy vacationing humans to gain a deeper understanding of how little they need to survive. I think tourism needs a reset button, a place to start over and think about why we visit and HOW we visit precious places like Hawaii.
What is the best beach on Oahu? Having spent many of our Hawaii respites on Maui, I thought I knew where the best beaches were, but there is so much to all the islands and the beach inventory that a perfect vacation could simply be staying in a quiet retreat and beach-hopping your days away. Rent a snorkel set for some off-beach fish finding, pack a picnic lunch, and enjoy the crowded coastal viewing highways - they are generally only two-lane roads and a lot of people like to find the sunset or the sunrise depending on which side of the island you are on. Your'e on vacation, so it's OK to go slow. Kokololio Beach Park just north of Hau'ula on the eastern shore of Oahu is a hippie's dreamscape of beachtop forest, grassy camp lands, and then a wide and pristine white sand beach with perfect surf for swimming and turtle finding. It's big enough for everyone, including the locals who make a habit of weekend camp setups with a hint of weed for a hip time at the beach. Also worth mentioning is the extremely nice group of locals who found my daughter's cellphone in the beach bathroom, and through a teen-inspired Insta-background check, were able to locate the phone's owner who was halfway down the Kamahameha Highway to the North Shore. I've always loved the locals in all the destinations we visit.
What's my favorite part of a visit to Hawaii? it's the people who drive the local economy, who live in the local communities, and who enjoy the spots alongside the tourists. I am not a crowd-seeker but I have clients who are and who love the sights and sounds of bustling Waikiki. For me, it only took one night in a half-baked hotel with spotty service and high prices to realize it was not the place for me - back to Kailua I went to be with family in a community that hopes the world will not discover it too quickly-or at all.
Hawaii is still one of my favorite places to visit, and it's definitely more about the people who are fighting to keep it whole for future generations to enjoy and to respect as the most geographically unique destination in the United States.
Deirdre Oss is a veteran city planner, mother of two awesome teenagers, and wife to an amazing husband and travel partner. A city girl for generations, her home and heart are in Denver, Colorado with family and friends across the country and the pond. Over two decades working in city planning provided the foundation for her to explore different cities through the lens of community planning to create places for people to thrive in daily life and beyond. This perspective allows her to travel with an eye toward local economy, transit, and special neighborhoods that appeal to both residents and tourists.