Finding Solidarity on Maui
Kipuka Olowalu’s Quest for a New Kind of Tourism on the Island
Our desire to spend time away from home for leisure drives an entire economic sector. The tourism industry is an umbrella that carries multiple other industries by including all the visitors’ direct or indirect activities at their destination, such as lodging, transport, meals, and local attractions. Even though tourism history and cultural importance began long before social media and globalization, air travel became more widely accessible, and online life has created a growing culture of pleasure-seekers, emphasizing trendy destinations and experiences.
Tourist arrivals in popular locations have increasingly become a double-edged sword regarding local impact. On the one hand, tourism triggers major foreign exchange and employment generation, injecting essential resources into the local economy. On the other hand, the excessive focus on tourism without appropriate policies protecting the local communities and natural resources has created tensions and clashes amongst visitors and domestic life in overcrowded tourist destinations.
With less than 50 thousand residents and more than 23 million tourists a year, Venice policymakers are pushing for paid reservations to enter the famous Italian city. Residents in tourism hotspots, such as New York, Paris, and Barcelona, have long suffered the effect of tourism on the housing market, facing the process of urban gentrification. To accommodate the volume of visitors, the construction of luxurious resorts in protected areas of Bahia, Brazil, especially in places of sea turtle reproduction, has left true environmental crimes behind.
In Maui, Hawaii, the story is not different. Its unique biodiversity and natural beauty in the core of the Pacific ocean attract visitors from around the world. Many tourists step into the island hoping to drink coconut water on the beach and taste the island’s flavors at local fruit stands, watching the famous rainbow over the mountains.
Once in the resort area in Lahaina — the past royal capital of Maui — the actual experience vastly contrasts with the most common expectations. Visitors find obtrusive buildings over ten stories high blocking any sight of the coast, their lawns replacing the beach sand; “private property” signs everywhere; a Louis Vuitton store and other luxurious brands barely a step from the famous Black Rock beach; grayish (i.e., unhealthy) coral reefs; landscaping instead of nature; an avalanche of made-in-China souvenirs and few local crafts.
The island’s Polynesian roots often supply names for the local resorts and live entertainment, but most of it felt like plastic and cultural appropriation at the service of capital rather than legitimate value and respect to the local communities. That entire side of Maui is a loud scene of overdevelopment and savage capitalism, overshadowing the natural beauty and cultural commonwealth that should sustain the island.
Balancing the desire of visitors for an authentic and immersive experience and the local resources with respect to the local people and nature is challenging but not impossible. The answer is often weaved within the local community who understand the genuine demands of that place.
In Maui, for instance, Kipuka Olowalu is among numerous local organizations working towards the balance between tourism, economy, and sustainability to reduce the visitors’ footprint on the island. Kipuka Olowalu is a non-profit organization focused on perpetuating the tradition and customary practices of Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) in connection to the natural environment.
I met Karin Osuga, Kipuka Olowalu’s executive director, during my recent visit to Maui. I was on a dirt road searching for the Olowalu Petroglyphs (Pu’u Kilea) — a hidden jewel of Hawaiian history — when I met Karin and her colleague Ua. They led a small group of tourists on one of their team’s weekly efforts to restore and protect the Olowalu Valley. As a marine biologist, Karin guides the work of volunteers as they remove invasive species from the land, hoping to recover the wetland area and its supporting ecosystem. Learning about Kipuka Olowalu added perspective to my Hawaiian experience, revealing local hubs of resistance by the commons against the overexploitation of the land by private capital.
Kipuka Olowalu follows four guiding values:
- Kupono : Honesty. Ku is to stand upright and Pono is righteous.
- Malama : To take care of properly; to nurture. Lama is the light, the generation of life.
- Kokua : To help without expectation of reciprocation. Ko is the sound of infinity, a whistle into eternity. Kua is the backbone; to stand upright.
- Aloha : Love and Compassion; which becomes automatic after learning the processes of Kupono, Malama, and Kokua.
All these values directly dialogue with the vision of the solidarity movement, understanding that development must be guided by care, love, compassion, and honesty, honoring the local communities and the land.
Given tourism’s importance for Maui’s economy, Kipuka Olowalu sets an example for reshaping tourism around the values of solidarity. The group attempts to shift the relationship between tourists and the island, welcoming visitors to volunteer on their campaigns to restore that ecosystem. Tourists join residents in efforts to remove invasive species and replant indigenous plants, learn about sustainable farming practices, and nurture the understanding that it is possible to rely on the island’s resources without damaging them — as generations of native Hawaiians have done it. This process recovers and disseminates cultural knowledge toward healthier connectivity between people, nature, tourism, and the local economy.
Rethinking Maui’s tourism industry in solidarity and led by the local community is a win-win process involving all participants who care about the island’s longevity and beauty. People from everywhere on the planet crave seeing Hawaii’s rich and unique wilderness. The last thing you would hope to find on any such vacation is the familiar logos of the mega-corporations taking over the island. Good travelers should trade the familiar things of home for a fresh and genuine curiosity, immersing themselves in the wonders such a destination can provide.
The most fabulous souvenir I received from the Island was actually a smell — the unique smell of a Puakenikeni, one of the most fragrant Hawaiian flowers, as a kind gift from Ua and something I would never trade for anything from Louis Vuitton.