With Memorial Day just past us, we’ve hit summertime here in Hawaii. Some might call this the height of “tourist season.”

Said with a sneer, maybe an eye-roll, “tourist” often brings on lots of different images: bad Aloha shirt, big hats, socks with Birkenstocks.

A few days ago, a news outlet reported that the recent notoriety Waimanalo has received as one of the “best beaches in the world” has led to an influx of buses and, that word again, tourists. Residents shared their (understandable) concern that tourists are exploiting the resources their tax dollars pay for.

south end of Waimanalo Bay

The beach at Waimanalo Bay is more than just No. 1 on a new national Top 10 list. It’s a place where residents and visitors mingle and maybe talk story.

Richard Wiens/Civil Beat

I empathize and side with these residents, but I also did so after a brief pause to reflect on myself. I’ve only lived on island for three years, and while I am doing everything I can to build the roots of “home” here, I am always checking my own actions to try and avoid this exploitation that the islands have struggled with for years. The very trade that sustains Hawaii’s economy (supporting 168,000 jobs, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority) is one that can lead to an exoticism and cultural appropriation that has unfortunately also become part of Hawaii’s story.

Still, I grew up coming here as, perhaps, a tourist. I have vivid memories of the first time I went to Waimanalo beach as a child, amazed that there were pine trees next to a beach. My local aunties, uncles, and cousins (who still live in Kalihi) laughed at my amazement, and led us to some benches. They brought buckets of KFC, ate and talked story with my family, taught us the word “‘okole” (and doubled over laughing as we ran around the beach, yelling the newfound term for “butt”). My family here lovingly watched as their touristy kin swam in the ocean, floating in Waimanalo’s calm, perfect seas.

I love that memory, and it popped into my head instantly the first time I went to Waimanalo as an adult, freshly transplanted to start working and living on island. Now, I question that experience: Was I part of a larger exploitation then? Am I still now?

I won’t claim any right to speak for Hawaii’s locals, but I know my experience so far has proved one important fact that helps me answer that question: There is a difference between being a “visitor” and being a “tourist.”

A tourist sees the island in all the appropriate, exotic terms Hawaii has dealt with for decades — its hula girls, beautiful hikes, amazing beaches — as present only for their enjoyment. Tourists walk through the island’s natural beauty and don’t heed signs about native plants, trespassing, or making sure to throw trash away in a can (the number of empty water bottles sitting at the base of Manoa Falls on any given day still baffles me).

They don’t worry about whether the family who lives down the street from the beach can also park there, because this is their opportunity to see this beach. The islands act as a sort of tropical theme park to them — someone else will clean that up, make sure that gets fixed, handle infrastructure, take care of the aftermath, right?

There’s nothing wrong with excitement about the once-in-a-lifetime experience it is to see Hawaii. I just encourage others who are not from here to try and be visitors instead. A visitor, I think, understands the island as a gift, and that being here, in this space, is a privilege, but not a right. Visitor come to a foreign place with the same mentality as when we visit a friend’s home: We offer to help with cleanup, ask what is appropriate to do, avoid messing up someone’s property, and try and learn about the people we are visiting with.

In essence, being visitors means remembering that Hawaii isn’t just a beautiful playground for them, but remembering that people live here, have important history and stories about this place, and deserve to have their home and space respected just like anyone else would.

In my short time here, I absolutely have experienced the “spirit of Aloha” in Hawaii and its people, but “aloha” doesn’t mean an open-door invitation to treat Hawaii as anything less than its worth. “Aloha” doesn’t mean using the island’s resources and beauty without appreciating the people who live here. As a tourist/visitor-turned-resident, “aloha” also means coming here and sharing “aloha” back with the island by understanding my responsibility: Respect the place and the people extending their home to you.

It also means sharing what I have learned: Hawaii isn’t just a beautiful place to serve as a backdrop for photos, it’s also full of amazing voices and stories that should be part of the experience when people come here as well. So, if you’re visiting here, I hope you don’t just come to take photos and try “spam sushi” (which you’ll see called “musubi”) but encourage you to think about and learn from the people who are sharing those things with you, too. It’ll make it all much more vivid and worthwhile.

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