If you’ve been following the news about Hawai‘i, you probably know that the state is in the midst of a great, pandemic-induced travel debate. In a nutshell, the travel restrictions imposed by COVID meant fewer visitors to the islands, which gave many Native Hawaiians and locals a glimpse of what life could be like if they had their home to themselves again: Hiking trails with room to roam. Roads without congestion. Beaches with less pollution.  

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And while overtourism was already a growing problem in the Aloha State before the pandemic, this glimpse of an untrampled Hawai‘i was so enticing that it pushed the issue into the spotlight more than ever before. Some Native Hawaiians and locals began to call for tourists to stop visiting entirely, but many others—including the state’s Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA) and Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau (HVCB)—took a more nuanced approach. The answer, they felt, was to encourage travelers to visit in a more mindful way. In 2020, HVCB launched a tourism program called Mālama Hawai‘i, which is ultimately a way to give back on your trip (“mālama” means “to take care of” in Hawaiian). The idea is to encourage travelers to leave Hawai‘i better than it was when they found it, so they are helping to curb—not contribute to—the overtourism problem. 

Photo: Liz Barney

The Hawaiians Islands are totally dependent on rainfall for all fresh water. In Hawaiian culture, the importance of fresh water can even be found in our language. The Hawaiian word for fresh water is wai, and something valuable—a treasure—is waiwai. Water is truly a treasure. And yet we face challenges to provide sufficient water resources due to extended drought periods, climate change, and, most recently, contamination issues. 

That means that, when you’re here as a traveler, it’s important to treat all of our water—including the ocean, freshwater streams and rivers, and watersheds—with care. Our saying for this is “e mālama i ka wai,” which translates to “cherish water.” The simple guiding message is to use what you need, but please don’t waste it. We Hawaiians need to take care of the land, the ocean, and waters, which means that travelers need to take care when visiting, too. What we all do today will affect our children and the generations that follow.

Arthur Aiu, O‘ahu-based water specialist and high chief of the Royal Order of Kamehameha

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