Hawai‘i Is Not Our Playground

For years, Hawai‘i has been packaged as a picturesque paradise. A place where mainland travelers could forget the worries of home. The problem? Hawai‘i’s land, history, and people are often ignored or trampled. Chris Colin reports on the locals who are pushing back.

Hawai‘i Is Not Our Playground

After centuries of colonialism, and decades of overtourism, it’s time to think about Hawai‘i differently.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

A while back, at a particularly apexy apex of pandemic awfulness, an acquaintance of mine posted a photo on Instagram. White sand, turquoise water, lush green mountain rising soothingly in the distance. The image was generic—but the Hawai‘i-recognizing corner of my temporal lobe lit right up. Wish we were here, this person had written.

At some level, yes, of course I wished I was there. But it was a wish with an asterisk, a catch I’ve been grappling with since my last trip to O‘ahu in late 2019. While I only visited O‘ahu on that trip, there, in an idling car in a Honolulu shopping center, all my happy illusions about Hawai‘i as a whole began to unravel.

The car belonged to Kyle Kajihiro, an academic and activist, and he was telling me how he fell into his third and highly unofficial line of work. For years Kajihiro watched as visitors from the mainland—perfectly intelligent and thoughtful visitors—transformed when they arrived in Hawai’i.

“Even people who are otherwise politically conscious—they’d get to Hawai‘i and their brains just slip into vacation mode,” Kajihiro told me. “They have this vision of Hawai‘i as this multicultural paradise. They don’t understand that there’s a history of colonialism and dispossession inscribed in the landscape itself.”


From left: Breadfruit, a ubiquitous (and cherished) ingredient; a statue of Queen Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

It frustrated Kajihiro, but it occurred to him that there existed a tool to push back against the nearly $18 billion tourism juggernaut responsible for this mindset. The tool was tourism itself. In 2000, he began moonlighting as a funny kind of tour guide—an on-the-side, word-of-mouth, extremely-not-for-money kind of tour guide. One of his stops might be ‘Iolani Palace, where he’d talk about the white businessmen and sugar barons who, backed by the U.S. government and military, staged a coup d’état and overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

Or he might head to the Mākua Valley. Considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians, this ground in the foothills of the Wai‘anae Mountains was taken over by the U.S. military in 1942 and used for live-fire training for decades. (It’s still the site of an active Native Hawaiian struggle to stop the military training and to recover and heal the land, Kajihiro says.)

Without an introduction, your average haole (foreigner) can’t just make an appointment, but that’s part of the point: Hawai‘i DeTours, as Kajihiro and colleague Terri Keko‘olani call the enterprise, aims to de-center the outsider, who never should’ve been at the center to begin with.


The USS Arizona Memorial tour doesn’t encompass the full history of Pearl Harbor, known in Hawaiian as Ke Awalau o Pu‘uloa.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

Have you sunbathed at Waikīkī Beach? Snorkeled at Shark’s Cove? If so, our route that morning would have seemed confounding. Kajihiro drove us inland, away from the beaches and souvenir shops. Up a gentle hill we went, and at the top, he pulled over. We were pointed back down the hill now, looking at the most visited tourist destination in the whole state.

As many as 4,000 people a day visit Ke Awalau o Pu‘uloa, the inlet shimmering faintly below us. Most of them know it by its newer name, Pearl Harbor. As I tried to picture warplanes roaring in, Kajihiro grabbed a worn binder from the backseat. Opening it up on his lap, he proceeded to walk me through all that had come before that moment in 1941, and all that had led to that moment—history omitted by the USS Arizona Memorial tour.

“Even people who are otherwise politically conscious—they’d get to Hawai‘i and their brains just slip into vacation mode,” Kajihiro told me.

On the day the British explorer Captain James Cook dropped anchor off Kaua‘i in 1779, a far-reaching colonial project began. In a matter of decades, Hawai‘i wasn’t just descended on by visitors; it was being remade as a more “palatable” simulacrum of itself. Ventures like Honolulu magazine, née Paradise of the Pacific, cropped up in the early 19th century, advertising an exotic land ripe for recreation, if a tad “primitive.”

American government subsidies to steamship companies made getting there easier, while enchanted visitors—Mark Twain, notably, in 1866—helped spread the gospel when they returned to the mainland. Hawai‘i was rapidly tamed and reinvented for the mainlander imagination, and soon hotels, restaurants, and other instruments of the tourism industry dotted the landscape.


From left: Radio telescopes on the sacred Mauna Kea volcano, where protests aim to prevent an observatory from being built. Right: Kaupō Valley, home to a section of Haleakalā National Park.

Photo Brendan George Ko

The consequences of this transformation are well documented and frequently ignored: a Native population estimated at 683,000 in 1778 reduced to 24,000 by 1920, all manner of sacred sites obliterated in the process; the Hawaiian language itself and countless traditions all but vanished. Today the once-thriving Indigenous population suffers disproportionate levels of poverty, addiction, incarceration, and homelessness.

Those are the broad strokes. The finer ones were glinting in the sun below us. For centuries Ke Awalau o Pu‘uloa was an estuary teeming with fish. More than 20 loko i‘a, or Hawaiian fishponds, were created here, some as large as 100 acres, providing a sustainable source of protein for many on the island. In the early 20th century, the sugarcane industry, urban development, and—especially—military expansion eradicated almost all of the loko i‘a.

Now, more than 85,000 acres on O‘ahu—some 25 percent of the island—are controlled by the military. This is the same military whose target practice bombed the island from World War II until 1990, when the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana halted the bombing, helping to birth the modern sovereignty movement. The same military that wiped out countless agricultural, ecological, and cultural sites. The Pearl Harbor memorial marks not one but two acts of destruction, for the Pearl Harbor narrative erased the Hawaiian history of resistance that preceded it.

Kajihiro started his car and we headed back down Hālawa Heights Road. For the next hour we tooled around Honolulu. At one point, I asked Kajihiro how so many mainlanders can come to O‘ahu and yet see so little of the version he was showing me.


Hōkūle‘a, a traditional voyaging canoe built in the 1970s.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

“Hawai‘i is overdetermined by the tourist discourse,” he replied. In non-academic speak: To most outsiders, Hawai‘i is defined by the lei-draped, aloha-dispensing, honeymooner-welcoming image of the place. There’s no room for another version to emerge.

At least that’s how it was until the telescope protests.

Nearly 200 miles from Honolulu, on the island of Hawai‘i, Mauna Kea rises 13,796 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the state. The dormant volcano is considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians. It’s also considered prime real estate by astronomers, and in 2015 construction of an 18-story observatory near the summit was slated to begin. The so-called Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) would be the biggest and most powerful in the Northern Hemisphere, and scientists thrilled at the prospect of observing distant galaxies. For many Hawaiians, the project represented something different: yet another desecration of their land, or an opportunity to draw a line in the sand.

If you’re not from Hawai‘i, you probably learned about the controversy the same way I did—from afar, through the strange fog of CNN headlines and mainlander ignorance. As the mainstream media tended to frame it, a battle had broken out between modernity and some misguided antiscience types. I was initially confused myself. This wasn’t Monsanto razing a preschool to build a Roundup plant, after all—just some astronomy nerds excited about the heavens. Weren’t scientists the good guys, these days?

Seldom mentioned in coverage of the protests was science’s dark colonial past: its exploitative history, its destruction of Native Hawaiian traditions, and its long entanglement with imperialism. The tendrils of so-called settler science can be traced from the arcana of agricultural pest control (certain techniques used by sugarcane planters here in the late 19th century helped pave the way for annexation) to the ostensibly neutral field of geography, with its promotion of a Western framing of land as a resource. On that same time line, centuries of Indigenous knowledge—advanced sustainability practices, sophisticated astronomy—increasingly became a footnote, trivia for those travel magazines.


From left: The non-endemic Dracaena marginata plant; the endemic Kūpaoa plant.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

Which is to say, the protests were never just about a telescope. The further desecration of a mountain central to Hawaiian spirituality and identity felt like not so much an affront as a final affront. As one of the protectors told CNN, “We are fighting to protect it because we know if we cannot stop this, there is not very much we can fight for or protect. . . . This is our last stand.”

Protesters managed to halt construction in 2015, and the project more or less remained in limbo until 2019, when it appeared that it would soon resume. Hawaiians of all backgrounds began making their way to the mountain. Kūpuna (elders) planted themselves in the path of construction vehicles, and parents brought their children. The protectors, as they call themselves, created a parallel society up there, complete with child care, legal advisors, a medical station, even free university classes. Soon the protests, and related activism, began rippling outward, all across Hawai‘i.

O‘ahu seemed to be in the throes of an inflection point, something even an outsider could feel after a few conversations. After my tour with Kajihiro, I began to shape my trip around those conversations. I wanted to spend the remainder of my week there mostly just talking with people, trying to understand something more internal than external about the place.

To most outsiders, Hawai‘i is defined by the lei-draped, aloha-dispensing, honeymooner-welcoming image of the place. There’s no room for another version to emerge.

Writer and activist Tina Grandinetti had been living in Melbourne when word of the TMT protests began reaching her. To her, as to many people I spoke with, the news amounted to a homing device. Without knowing exactly what she’d do, she got on a plane and came home to contribute to the movement.

On a humid afternoon, Grandinetti and I met in the increasingly gentrified Honolulu neighborhood of Kaka‘ako, a couple miles from Waikīkī. She’d grown up in central O‘ahu, where aloha ‘āina—love of our lands, roughly—wasn’t a sweet aspiration but a way of life. She had felt “cradled by the mountains.” Now that way of life seemed to be undergoing a renaissance, as momentum built to protect it.

She began researching the Native Hawaiian and working class history that had been demolished and reinvented in the name of development here—not just garden-variety gentrification but a changing of the story of the place. She pointed out to a building where a condo had reportedly sold for $30 million. The place—once the site of several fishponds—had been remade to attract outside investment, causing working class and Native Hawaiians to feel like outsiders, in some cases literally. Grandinetti pointed to a collection of tents in a park, where a number of Native Hawaiians were living. It was impossible not to see her research as part of something larger, a pulling back of old curtains.


More than 85,000 acres on O‘ahu—some 25 percent of the island—are controlled by the U.S. military.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

“There’s an expression you hear a lot, growing up here: ‘That’s the price of living in paradise.’ But over time I realized, No—that’s the price of occupation and colonialism,” she said.

As a visiting mainlander, this much was becoming clear to me: To engage Hawai‘i at anything close to a serious level is to ask what it means even to come. This is the question I asked myself one rainy morning, atop a surfboard I’d rented in between interviews. What followed was a simultaneously mellow and neurotic hour on the waves off O‘ahu’s south shore.

I don’t wish to make this about me, but that’s just the thing: It was about me. Strap on the DeTours goggles and you start seeing how much a place like this has been engineered for consumption—your consumption, if you’ve got a rolling suitcase and a wallet full of vacation dollars. This little surfing interlude I’d paid for: Was I just reinforcing the idea of this place as a playground for tourists?

In 2019, Duke University Press published an anthology that amounted to a big gut punch for a segment of travelers, myself included. Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i (no relation to Kajihiro’s operation, though he did contribute to the book) is a fascinating collection, an attempt to use the framework of the travel industry to destabilize the travel industry. The pieces within achieve something similar to what Kajihiro does, scraping at the fantasy version of this place to find what’s been buried.

Tina Grandinetti had turned her Kaka‘ako research into an eye-opening essay in the book. Editors Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez and Hōkūlani K. Aikau write:

We refuse the marketing and prostitution of Hawaiian culture, land, and labor for tourist consumption. . . . Behind the image of the smiling, gentle, seductively beckoning icon of the hula girl—meant to invite, reassure, welcome—is a Hawai‘i that has always been clear about its expressions of aloha ‘āina (love for our lands) and ‘a‘ole (refusal). It has learned from its history that visitors do not always come with the best intentions, nor do they understand practices of true reciprocity as crucial to the extension of aloha.


“As a visiting mainlander, this much was becoming clear to me: To engage Hawai‘i at anything close to a serious level is to ask what it means even to come.”

Photo by Brendan George Ko

Like many mainlanders, I considered myself a responsible traveler when I visited the islands on past trips. I read Hawaiian writers, left local beaches to the locals, avoided the tourist traps, generally tried to tread lightly. But reciprocity? What did that mean in the context of travel? Might it be more than just spending our money here?

The day before I went surfing, Gonzalez had kindly agreed to meet. As she took me to various places of interest around Honolulu, I asked her some version of my reciprocity question. Her response was a question of her own: Could travelers learn to arrive with an entirely different mindset? Instead of just coming to enjoy the islands’ charms, could their focus be on supporting those seeking change? Could they do the work of finding people like Kajihiro, of learning more history, of giving instead of taking? There’s not a travel agency that will set those things up for you, no website where you can select each of those options. But that’s sort of the point.

As a visiting mainlander, this much was becoming clear to me: To engage Hawai‘i at anything close to a serious level is to ask what it means even to come.

My time in O‘ahu coincided with a larger shift happening all over the world. And then the pandemic hit, bringing with it the protests and renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of the questions being raised right now—questions about who has been centered and who has been marginal in just about every corner of U.S. society—echo the questions swirling around Hawai‘i. To have lived through the pandemic and the cracks it exposed wasn’t just to come out hankering for a beautiful vacation. It was to see that the center really can’t hold, the myths we tell ourselves are crumbling, and fundamental change is overdue.

After my time with Gonzalez, I got in my rental car and drove north along the Leeward Coast, toward the Lualualei Valley. It’s both strikingly gorgeous and strikingly poor, and home to the greatest concentration of Native Hawaiians anywhere in the state. An almost iridescent grass covers the hills in the distance; up close, discarded tires dot the side of the road, and abandoned cars sit engulfed in weeds. I headed east, along a narrow road leading away from the coast, until I reached a 25-acre plot.

Kahumana Organic Farms is a nonprofit that works with homeless families and others who find themselves downstream of colonialism’s long-term effects. Founded in 1974, it now combines farming, social work, and other community-minded programming. I’d come to Kahumana because it had been deeply embedded in Native issues for so long—and because I had heard one of the workers at its café had just returned from Mauna Kea.


For Native Hawaiians, water is a symbol of abundance.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

I arrived at the café just as the woman’s shift was ending; her young son was there, waiting for them to go home for the day. Like many people I’d met on this trip, she was reluctant to discuss the TMT protests with a haole journalist—and reluctant to share her name with the world.

“What have you heard about it?” she asked. I gathered from her expression that I was being auditioned. I didn’t blame her. I offered her my understanding of the situation as her son skittered around us and periodically reminded her it was time to go home.

In time, the audition mellowed into something more like chitchat, and soon she was describing her time on the mauna, as it’s called. It had been revelatory. She got out her phone and flicked through misty photos—some elders here, some kids playing there. I once met a man who’d crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, 1965. The way this woman talked about her time with the other protesters—the love and the anger and the wistfulness and the pride all swelled together in a similar way.

It hadn’t occurred to me to write about my short visit with her. But later, back home in California, our brief conversation stuck with me, more than the hula lesson I’d stumbled upon, or the slack key guitar concert in the hotel lobby, or that perfect sweet-salty musubi bite I found in Waikīkī. It stuck with me because it wasn’t for me.

It had been a tiny sliver of actual Hawai‘i, arranged for nobody’s enjoyment or relaxation or entertainment. By the end the woman was no longer narrating, just scrolling through photos and remembering, until at last she snapped back into the present. Then she put her phone away, we said goodbye, and she took her boy home.

>>Next: A Better Way to Visit Hawai‘i

I’m a Contributing Writer for AFAR, the author of “What Really Happened to the Class of ’93" and “Blindsight,” and bassist for Baby and the Luvies, and I was once in a film shot by chimps, and I teach writing at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and my grandmother was the Gerber baby, and I sort of miss living in the Balkans, and my three-year-old talks too much about aliens.
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