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A Tourism-Dependent Economy

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Something that stood out to me about Hawai'i was how heavily the economy was steeped in the tourism industry. In the more populated areas, it was difficult to find a beautiful place that didn’t have its fingers stained with consumerism. 

Just down the road from the Japanese gardens on Banyan Drive was a slew of hotels with chlorinated swimming pools and plastic lounge chairs. Resorts along the coast hosted luaus for their guests complete with buffets and synthetic green hula skirts. Kona was teeming with souvenir shops, all stocked with identical patterned shirts, ukuleles, wooden beads and tubes of Banana Boat sunscreen (containing chemicals that are dangerous to coral reefs.)

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Notably, people on both sides of the TMT debate have nodded to consumerism in their arguments —some have accused TMT of the same self-serving exploitation of Hawaiian land and culture that has long been a fixture of the economy; meanwhile, supporters of TMT see it as a way out of the confining tourism industry that leaves local employees with very little room for growth. 

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I was hyper-aware of the fact that I was on the island during the summer when locals were urging tourists not to come. As travel restrictions were lifted, an influx of tourists contributed to problems such as diversion of water and resources, pollution, income-generating vacation rentals gentrifying Native Hawaiians and desecration of cultural sites, not to mention a higher risk of COVID spread. While I did my best as an individual to reduce my footprint, I could see firsthand how the island suffered from overtourism.


It's clear that Hawai'i will never not be a popular destination for honeymoons and family vacations. However, people I spoke to were having conversations about how to reframe the infrastructure of tourism in a way that will make it more ethical and sustainable. It’s possible that neither of the agendas from the two sides of the TMT debate can be achieved without any damage—History has shown that with such polarizing issues, we are always sacrificing something for another thing, and even when one faction is victorious, the aftermath is never entirely Edenic.

I realized, then, that the questions I asked might be more important than the answers I was looking for. The heart of the issue is this:


Does TMT’s opportunities for employment and education in the STEM domain, which could shepherd the island away from its business cycle sustained by harmful, low-wage tourism jobs, outweigh its placement on a Hawaiian cultural site, which would ostensibly perpetuate cultural contamination?

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) 2021 Resident Sentiment Survey

The following graphs illustrate the opinions of Hawaiian residents concerning tourism. In a survey, they were asked to rank each statement from 1-10, with 1 meaning that they strongly disagree with the statement and 10 meaning that they strongly agree with the statement.

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