I love New York. It’s just an incredible city on every level. Long overdue for a vacation, I spent last week there with my teenage son.
At one point during our stay, I needed to head out to buy another suitcase (we over-shopped). I grabbed a cold brew and strolled down the street of our hotel in Hell’s Kitchen looking for somewhere to buy luggage.
I found myself next to an incredibly beautiful black man – the kind of beauty that just catches your eye. I’m not one to stare, but I kept looking at him and thought he looked familiar.
Lower Manhattan at sunset. Like all great places, New York City is a place worthy of respect.
Oh, New York.
We got to an intersection and I couldn’t help but ask, “I’m sorry, are you Billy Porter?” Because really, I imagined he floated everywhere or was at least carried by gold-clad men everywhere he went. Billy Porter would not be strolling down 8th Avenue next to a cold brew-slurping schlep like me.
He turned, twirled really, and answered with a beautiful smile, “Why yes I am!”
I fan-girled. I gushed. I told him how much I love him. I felt like an idiot, but I didn’t care.
My phone was literally in my hand – but I didn’t ask for a picture.
I thought about it. It seemed wrong. As amazing and glorious as Billy Porter is, he was just walking down the street. And it seemed like a New York faux pas to ask for a photo, or worse, take one without asking.
I love New York. I also respect it.
Not every moment needs a selfie. Not everything needs a photo. Being a tourist does not entitle one to access or a right to memorialize every second of our experience.
New York City hosts 65 million tourists a year, considerably more than Hawaii’s 10 million annually. Yet, whether in a city as populated and dense as New York or a far more rural place like Hawaii, tourists, wherever they are and whoever they are should respect the local customs and right of residents to enjoy their daily lives.
When Tourism Devastates
Tourism, when not effectively managed, can have devastatingly adverse impacts on cultural resources, natural resources and local communities.
While we feel these effects here in Hawaii, our islands are certainly not unique to this problem. The Galapagos Islands have seen environmental problems from tourism. Also Stonehenge, the Parthenon, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and other extraordinary sites are regularly subject to graffiti, tourists who carve into historic features or steal from the site, or are simply being degraded from a lack of tourism management.
When a trail or other attraction needs to be closed, like this one near Akaka Falls on the Big Island, how do we get visitors to cooperate?
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Some of the issues ICOMOS identified included concern over how poor planning can damage the heritage and lifestyles of host communities, how excessive or unmonitored tourism changes the ecology or biodiversity of a place, and how disrespectful visitors can adversely impact spiritual places, practices and traditions.
We too often hear of tourists here in Hawaii who ignore “Keep Out” signs, deface historic sites, trespass onto private property, and use the latest social media information or apps to access places that are explicitly protected. In many cases, these actions can lead to serious injury or even death.
Some tourists are ignoring the reality that Hawaii is a natural environment with real dangers, like sharks, cliffs and flash floods.
It is time to have a real conversation about the number of tourists coming to Hawaii and how we are managing those that do come.
Many local communities are starting to lead inspiring initiatives to educate and manage tourism. On Kauai, a group of community members have started the “Aloha Pledge,” where they ask tourists to sign a pledge that includes some helpful and practical commitments:
I will stay in legal and licensed visitor accommodations.
I will stay off the reef. I understand even brushing coral can kill a whole coral colony.
I will look for welcoming signage to let me know if an area is public. If none is visible I will not intrude.
I will buy flowers and produce from the store or a farmers market and never pick from someone’s yard.
I will protect special places by never geotagging when using social media.
None of the requests local communities seek are unreasonable. Many are just common sense, but it seems that common sense has not been particularly common.
Catch Them Before Arrival
While tourism is certainly a healthier industry than many others, we must remain mindful that it is still an industry in need of effective management. And this management must originate from our local communities, particularly those most affected by this growing industry.
Perhaps we need individual island or county tourism authorities that go beyond the work of the Hawaii Tourism Authority to monitor the guidebooks or apps that promote trespassing and other illegal activities.
Airlines could do a better job of educating visitors before they arrive.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Influential retailers like the ABC Stores or hotel chains should be discouraged from carrying guidebooks or other documents that promote dangerous or harmful tourist activities.
Airlines should be encouraged to air more educational videos about Hawaii and its fragile resources during incoming flights. And perhaps that Department of Agriculture form given to people just before arrival should include guidelines about proper cultural and ecological conduct.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been anywhere in the world, including Hawaii, where the local people weren’t kind and gracious, but respect has always been a necessary precursor to that hospitality.
And we are much more likely to see respectful, responsible behavior from tourists if we take the time to educate them as to what that means here in our islands.
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Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.