The internet is full of photos and videos from Hawaii as tourism rebounds after months of being dormant due to the pandemic, but not everybody is happy with the publicity.

Several social media posts showing people touching endangered Hawaiian monk seals, hiking on a forbidden trail or going off designated paths have outraged locals and sparked a debate over how to better regulate and protect popular sites.

Overtourism and wayward hikers is not a new problem for Hawaii, which has been one of the world’s most popular destinations for decades. But an influx of visitors amid relaxed COVID-19 restrictions and the spread of social media influencers has raised new concerns.

Some residents are taking matters into their own hands, using social media as a tool to try to divert tourists away from sensitive areas as well as to educate people how to responsibly visit and interact with the wildlife and other natural wonders in the islands.

Haiku Stairs
A Honolulu City Council resolution is moving forward to dismantle Haiku Stairs. Screenshot/Civil Beat/2021

“When tourists come to visit these places, leave the geotag unavailable,” advises Melissa Akoni, who has become well known for her efforts to promote the responsible use of Hawaii’s resources.

She was referring to the practice of adding geographical metadata and locations to social media posts that may be used to find popular areas.

“That just shows respect for wanting to keep it preserved. To me it means as much as picking up trash while you’re in these spaces,” she added.

In a recent example, somebody with the username maza.travel posted a video on the sharing app TikTok that shows a woman climbing Oahu’s Haiku stairs, also known as the Stairway to Heaven, which were closed to the public in 1987.

@mmmeliss_

It’s extremely irresponsible to be using your platform to willingly spread FALSE information. #hawaii #conservation #nature #hiking #hawaiian

♬ original sound – Melissa🌱

She claimed she took the “long and legal way,” prompting angry commenters to point out that it’s illegal to set foot on the stairs. The video has been removed from TikTok, but a photo on Instagram remains.

The influencer, who has more than 35,000 followers on Instagram, did not respond to messages seeking comment sent via TikTok, Instagram and email.

The Honolulu Police Department said it issued more than 70 citations and made five arrests related to trespassers on the trail in the second half of June alone, Hawaii News Now reported.

“When it comes to Haiku Stairs, there is no middle ground,” Nathan Serota, a spokesman for the Department of Parks and Recreation, said in a telephone interview. “It’s illegal to go on the stairs. Period.”

State and county officials are trying to find ways to better regulate tourism in addition to fines and citations that can be hard to enforce.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority is working on a statewide reservation system similar to one implemented earlier this year for Hanauma Bay and other state parks.

Increasing visitor fees is another tactic being considered. Nonresident fees for Hanuma Bay increased to $25 from $12 earlier this month.

The Honolulu City Council is also pushing forward a resolution that would dismantle Haiku Stairs. The next full City Council hearing for the bill is Aug. 11.

‘Tag Responsibly’

Akoni, who is from the Big Island and has more than 176,000 followers on TikTok, uses her social media platform to educate her audience about the history, culture and wildlife in Hawaii.

She was one of the commenters calling out “maza.travel” in February about her claim that there is a legal way to hike the stairs.

The problem gained national attention recently when a Louisiana couple honeymooning on Kauai posted a video of the woman touching a monk seal, then running away after the resting seal raised its head and snapped at her. Touching or harassing monk seals is a felony.

The video went viral, and the couple was fined $500, according to The Garden Island.

The “Da808Feed” Instagram account that posts videos from Hawaii residents and news outlets shared a TikTok video titled “PSA to all the tourists” with a couple providing their thoughts on how to engage with wildlife.

“How do you interact with them?” a man asks a woman pointing at a sea turtle.

“You don’t,” she responds. “You just leave them. Admire them from afar.”

Other social media users favor trickery to try to stem the flood of visitors to popular sites as part of an effort dubbed “Tag Responsibly And Keep Hawaii Beautiful.”

For example, several photos of Manoa Falls, a nearly mile-long trail that leads to a 150-foot waterfall, were labeled with false locations such as Waikiki, Ala Wai Canal and even Narnia or Jurassic Park.

Kanaka Climbers, a Native Hawaiian-led nonprofit hiking and rock climbing group, labels photos as being in the “Kingdom of Hawai‘i,” referring to the kingdom that was overthrown in 1893.

Signs posted by the Department of Land and Natural Resources often do little to discourage hikers from visiting spots deemed off-limits. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2019

“If they’re at least acknowledging the space for our people or kingdom, that’s a step in the right direction,” the group’s executive director Skye Razon-Olds said. She acknowledged that local residents also can be disrespectful.

“It’s not always visitors that are the issue,” Razon-Olds said.

“I love my culture. I want to share it, but I want to do it respectfully,” she said. “I hate to say this, and I know people have a hard time with this, but we have locals who were born and raised here who don’t share the same sentiments.”

She said her group is working on a video that could be used as a field guide for visitors on where to legally hike, while providing information on the land, culture and wildlife.

Equal Access

Serota, the parks and recreation department spokesman, said he has seen his friends use false geotags but it’s important for the department to provide “equitable access to everyone.”

“We want to provide people greater access to our parks,” Serota said. “On the other hand, we completely understand why people are trying to keep (hidden) a lot of these areas that are lesser known and really don’t have the capacity for the influx of tourists that we’re seeing now.”

The department monitors social media to see when people tag certain parks and will comment on posts about Haiku Stairs to inform people about the rules.

Hanauma Bay visitos.
Hanauma Bay recently launched a pilot program to regulate visitors into the nature preserve. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The solution for residents and tourists to coexist is complicated, Akoni said.

Akoni said she stresses that Hawaii “has more to offer than its beaches or luau” and recommends that visitors take the time to visit cultural sites like the Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace, and even participate in community events like park cleanups.

“I always mention how we grow up learning from our parents that whenever you go to a place, you leave it in better condition than when you got there,” Akoni said. “It’s like going to somebody’s house. If there’s dishes in the sink, you wash it all before you leave. That pertains to the same way (to act) on the island.”

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