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I Left Hawaii for Two Years. When I Came Back, Newcomers Had Overrun the Islands

The pandemic changed Hawaii, but its issues run much deeper

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Until two weeks ago, the last time I set foot on Oahu was Jan. 2, 2020. I was 23 years old and had no idea I would spend the next two and a half years in self-imposed exile from the Islands upon which I’d been born and raised. I had no idea how the pandemic would change Hawaii.

After spending a year and a half in Oregon, where I got my master's degree, and a year in Tennessee, where I am now pursuing my Ph.D., it was a shock to return to Hawaii. A bag of chips that sells for $2.99 in Tennessee sells for $4.99 in Honolulu. A plate lunch from my favorite Korean spot is now $18.95 when it used to be $14.50. My parents' faces have accrued more lines, and my youngest brother, who two years ago was small enough for me to carry, is now 6-foot-5.

More people are on my favorite hikes and beaches, more erosion and more trash. But the most significant change I’ve found is that everywhere I go, I am faced not just with tourists, but worse—somebody who calls themselves a local but has just moved to the Islands. 

For locals, the largest negative effects of overtourism in Hawaii don’t come from temporary visitors but from people who choose to make the Islands their home without regard for Hawaii’s history or culture. When you look at the numbers of visitors to Hawaii—233,616 in April 2019 versus 236,835 in April 2022, according to the state's website—they aren’t much different. What is different is the number of newcomers who have moved to the Islands, forcing housing prices and the cost of living to skyrocket. 

In 2021 alone, over 30 percent of homes on the island of Maui were bought by out-of-state buyers. While a house on average cost $789,000 in 2019, that price is now up to over $1.1 million, according to the Honolulu Board of Realtors. My friends and I live on the mainland because we want to, but also because there is no way that we can afford to rent or buy houses in Hawaii. 

The digital nomad phenomenon has resulted in an influx of newcomers in cities around the world, but especially to picturesque locations like Hawaii. The issue with Hawaii is that it doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to host more homes and people—it doesn’t—it’s that Hawaii is an island chain that can’t expand. It will never have the infrastructure to support the demands of newcomers and digital nomads. 

View of crowded neighbourhood in Hawaii
simonkr / Getty Images

Nearly everything in Hawaii is imported, and as the demand for these imports increases due to the number of newcomers to the Islands, the prices of these imports rise alongside housing prices. Locals can’t compete with the high salaries of project managers and corporate executives. These digital nomads are pushing locals out of their homes to cheaper lives on the mainland. The pandemic has only quickened the exodus of Hawaii’s population. 

For years, kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) and non-Indigenous longtime residents have advocated limiting outside influence on the islands. A huge reason why I did not travel home for two and a half years is that, as someone who descends from the group of people who colonized Hawaii, I feel it is not just my responsibility but a debt I must pay to do everything in my power to protect and uplift the voices of kānaka maoli.

From the start of the pandemic in March 2020 until now, major media outlets have documented Hawaiian pushback against tourism. While it is true that unsustainable tourism has skyrocketed since Hawaii has lifted COVID-19 regulations, the effects of settler colonialism are an insidious rot that spreads throughout Hawaii’s statehood and colonization.

Most recently, the Red Hill protests have revealed America’s unsustainable practices as a caretaker of the Hawaiian Islands. This response to the Navy’s petroleum contamination of Pearl Harbor’s tap water is rooted in the Hawaiian practice of mālama ʻāina, translated to the responsibility to care for the land and the resources it provides. Hawaiian culture is deeply rooted in land stewardship. Hawaiians see the land not as property owned or sold, but as family, something newcomers often fail to recognize.

The strength and passion that kānaka maoli have shown through recent movements like Crisis at Kapūkakī (Red Hill) and the Mauna Kea Protests stem from a history of abuse and illegal occupation by the United States. The sad reality is that America’s tourist and military presence in Hawaii has done irreparable damage to the land and resources of the Islands, forcing kānaka maoli and Hawaii’s residents to depend on tourism.

As someone from a family of service workers—my mom is a lifeguard and my stepdad a pilot who could not work for much of the pandemic due to canceled flights—I know the financial benefits tourism brings to the Islands. Without tourism, many people in Hawaii would not be housed or fed. But there has to be a way to introduce a more sustainable tourist practice and continue promoting Hawaii’s growth without pushing out Native Hawaiians and locals. 

The effects of settler colonialism are an insidious rot that spreads throughout Hawaii’s statehood and colonization

As a non-Hawaiian who was born and raised on the Islands and now lives on the mainland, I need a cost-benefit analysis each time I return to Oahu. Does the joy I receive from traveling to see my friends, family, and the place I grew up outweigh the harm I cause by traveling to an illegally-occupied island? The answer is never yes. And yet here I am on Oahu, sleeping in my childhood bedroom by night, swimming in Hawaii’s oceans, and climbing its mountains by day. I, too, am part of the problem. 

Tourists and non-Hawaiian residents must find ways to support and privilege Hawaiian voices, educate themselves on Hawaiian history and culture, and practice land stewardship. There are many ways to do this, along with volunteering with organizations like Paepae O He’eia to restore Hawaiian fishponds, taking part in a beach cleanup with Sustainable Coastlines, or putting in a few hours working at a Hawaiian heiau like the one protected by Hawaii Land Trust.

My deepest wish for the people of Hawaii is to find a way to transition from being a service economy dependent on tourism to a more self-sustaining community, as they were before colonization. I am unsure how feasible this is or if it will ever happen, but a girl can dream. Until this does happen, I would urge travelers to volunteer with organizations that practice land stewardship and the preservation of Hawaiian culture, along with supporting places like Pu'u O Hoku Ranch and Hanalei Taro, which are dedicated to cultivating a sustainable relationship with the land.