The Match That Lit The Fire: Maui Wildfires and the Effects of The Tourism Industry In Hawaii

Image of the Maui wildfires | Source: Mother Jones
Image of the Maui wildfires | Source: Mother Jones

     Leveled by the devastating wildfires that swept the land, Maui still struggles to pick up the pieces of an already fractured state. Videos surfacing of families scrambling to evade the roaring flames have blown up across all platforms. Residents in Hawaii are calling upon government officials to provide some relief from this traumatizing experience. Currently the deadliest wildfire in US history, this unforgiving inferno has claimed the lives of 115 people and counting. The fires bring attention to the experiences of Hawaiian natives in today’s society.

While the beautiful island burns to the ground, the tourism industry adds further salt to the wound making an already difficult recovery much harder. Despite the condition of Maui, people are still coming to vacation taking much needed resources from the struggling natives. This leads us to a number of questions.

Why is the tourism industry there so successful? How and why did the US gain control of Hawaii? Is it unethical that Hawaii is even a part of the US? It is imperative that we as American citizens learn, accept, and respect the history behind Hawaii’s occupation and hold the families suffering in Maui in our hearts and minds.

        To truly understand the current state of Hawaii, we need to have a clear understanding of its history. Hawaii was once its own kingdom but it was colonized by the British in 1843 and later annexed by the United States in 1898. The main reason for the United States taking Hawaii was purely based on economic advancement and a presence of power in the Pacific.

The United States was also worried that Europe would take full control of Hawaii which would be far from beneficial. This gave more of an incentive to occupy Hawaii. It is important to keep in mind that this was all without the consent of Hawaii.

On January 16th, 1893 United States troops invaded the Hawaiian Kingdom without a justifiable reason. This resulted in Her Majesty Queen Liliuokalani’s surrender. Despite conviction from the Hawaians, the kingdom was possessed and taken as a state. Five years later after the Newlands Resolution was passed by Congress, President McKinley annexed Hawaii and Sanford Dole became the first governor of the new state of Hawaii. 

        This may seem like a lot of information to process but it is important to provide some background information on the topic. It may also seem odd to connect this to the current wildfires but, these flames are excessively devastating Hawaii for a reason. What is happening now gives us insight on what life is like for native Hawaians.

As stated before, economics was a huge reason for Hawaii’s occupation. After the state was annexed, plantation owners were able to achieve financial protection. They were able to gain exemption from import taxes for the sugar they shipped to the U.S. This resulted in an upsurge of power for white businessmen and a depletion of resources and wealth for the natives. 

          As the years went by and tourism became more popular, the already weakened demographic became much more strained. The Hawian islands are filled with a variety of different cultures and the land itself proves lush and breathtaking. Tourists were so elated by the beauty of the islands that the economy and infrastructure of the land became dependent on their everlasting support. Approximately 10 million tourists visit Hawaii every year pouring billions of dollars into vacationing there. In 2022 alone visitors spent $2.68 billion dollars on Hawaii. This may seem like a beneficial thing for native Hawians. After all, that money could go to the hard-working families in the islands. Unfortunately, this is extremely far from the case. Yes, there is a surplus of money generated by the tourism industry but it is important to question who is most benefiting from this. 

          In an ideal world, the billions of money going into Hawaii would help local businesses. This would help with some of the issues the tourism industry creates. In reality, the money lines the pockets of big corporations outside of Hawaii that have some sort of affiliation with the state. To provide an example, the large hotel chains in Hawaii aren’t owned in Hawaii. The money made from the hotels ends up being split between the people involved that are based outside of the state.

And yes, there are jobs being created by the industry but most of the revenue is gained by the corporations involved. Other than the lack of money being received by the natives, there are more problems that are caused by the tourism industry. With new visitors every year, the state must build infrastructure to house tourists. This causes substantial damage to the environment and wildlife.

Tourism also fetishizes Hawian culture turning the islands into a gimmick. Their islands are put on display and used as a marketing tool for the aforementioned corporations. With the devastatingly low amount of opportunities and no space for any of their traditions, the native Hawians are forced to suppress their roots and adjust to living in a state of perpetual exploitation. They are constantly pushed to the side lines and must spectate the ongoing disappearance of their language and culture.

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          These issues only exacerbated the Maui wildfires as the resources natives need are being taken by the tourists. If the tourism industry did not have such a devastating effect on the ecosystem for instance, the wildfires wouldn’t have spread as quickly. Local tourism officials have asked visitors to leave the island in hopes to free up resources for the natives. This has left Maui in a predicament. On one hand, the tourism industry is hurting their way of life. On the other hand, they need the money from tourists to recover from the wildfires. I

It is safe to say that Hawians need time and space to mourn the loss of loved ones and to recover their livelihoods before the dads in Hawian shirts come to visit. 

          We as educated citizens need to recognize the humanity and severity of the situation through all of this. These are real lives that are truly affected by the onslaught of issues thrown at them. Dependent on the very industry that is weakening the aspect of their culture and environment, native Hawain are left with a plethora of questions with no end in sight.

If you want to provide support for the people suffering in Maui, simply don’t go. Not right now at least. The resources that would be given to anyone on vacation are much more needed and deserved by the people that live with the consequence of a harmful industry every day.

Hawaii is a part of us as a country and we need to show the islands love and compassion. We need to provide support without further adding salt to the wound. Maybe then, the people of Hawaii will rise from the ashes of their homeland reborn and empowered. To replenish the beautiful land and the hope that was seared from their hearts as a result of the wildfires.


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