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A young girl holds a sign that reads, “Please keep your distance ocean length.”
On March 18, Molokai residents led a demonstration imploring tourists not to come to the state of Hawaii to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
Courtesy of Walter Ritte

Please don’t go to Hawaii on a “corona vacation” right now

People dream of escaping to an “exotic” place during the pandemic. But they’re endangering local residents.

Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer and journalist covering politics, culture, and society through the prism of race and identity. She has reported extensively on issues concerning marginalized BIPOC communities, including the lasting legacy of colonialism and US imperialism on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.

On March 20, the sound of honking horns tore through the air on an otherwise serene afternoon in Waikiki, Hawaii’s most renowned tourist haven. The Kū Kiaʻi Hawaiʻi convoy, dominated by nearly 100 trucks and SUVs, many flying the Hawaiian flag, had come with a message for tourists idling on the sidewalks and beach that day: Go home.

Before Hawaii Gov. David Ige ordered a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals beginning March 26, his most aggressive containment measure was to urge visitors to postpone their vacations, defaulting to county mayors to impose shelter-in-place orders or closures of nonessential businesses. At that point, Hawaii was already days out from its first reported coronavirus case of a resident who hadn’t traveled: a tour guide at Kualoa Ranch on the windward coast of Oahu, leaving many to assume she contracted the virus from a tourist.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige in 2018. Ige has been criticized for not putting quarantine and “stay at home” measures in place sooner for the state.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

By the time he imposed the quarantine, Hawaii already had 48 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, up from 14 cases on the day he encouraged visitors to cancel their trips. At that press conference, the governor said that while he recognized residents’ concerns about visitors bringing the virus to the islands, the state’s authority was limited, but officials were coordinating with the National Coast Guard and other federal agencies to screen visitors.

Not only were tourists not heeding his call, but, as Covid-19 cases were blooming across the US almost overnight, many more seized the opportunity to “escape” the new pandemic by isolating in paradise as airfares plummeted. A quick search of “corona vacation Hawaii” on Twitter yields an endless stream of users pining for a “corona vacation” to the islands because, as one visitor says, they would rather quarantine where they could “live it up” in luxury.

“Crisis tourism is billionaire bunker mentality,” Honolulu resident Khara Jabola-Carolus, who works at the Hawaii Department of Human Services as executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, told Vox. “A crisis erupts and you jet off with no regard for the impact on the host place.”

She recalled a recent visit to Target when it was seemingly full of such “crisis tourists,” mostly mainland visitors who, she says, had exploited the pandemic to travel to Hawaii at a bargain and escape the virus in an idyllic place. Now that they’re here, she said, they’re competing with locals for basic necessities, noting the bare shelves as she walked down the store’s aisles. It’s happening around the US, “but Hawaii’s strong escapist ‘brand,’ combined with its dependency on tourism, has resulted in a [particularly] concerning situation here.”

Then there is the impact on limited hospitals and clinics in the state additional people would cause if they became sick. “Our health care system is ill-equipped to handle the influx of people who will need beds and ventilators, much less have the resources to assist other ailments at the same time,” Kauai Police Chief Todd G. Raybuck recently said in a statement. “This is a moment to consider the health of the community as a whole and to reevaluate what is truly essential.”

With tourism being an added threat during an already scary time, it didn’t take long for locals to mobilize.

Kawena Phillips, a Native Hawaiian activist who coordinated the convoy through Waikiki, planned the action in a day and a half. “It was important for us to step up and at least say something on the matter,” Phillips told Vox. “If our government officials aren’t going to do [anything], then we need to protect our communities and take care of them. We can’t be caught flat-footed and complacent.”

Inspired by similar actions on Molokai and Maui earlier that week, he gathered the group to ride from the Honolulu airport down through Waikiki, blaring bullhorns and shouting their various sign slogans out of the car windows to announce that Hawaii was closed to tourism.

“People were flipping us off, and there were some instances of tourists sarcastically coughing in our direction,” Phillips said. “There were a few interactions like that during the day with people who felt almost entitled to being there.”

This hostility might come as a surprise in a state known for its aloha and the informal motto to “hang loose.” “The internal culture in Hawaii [has always been], ‘no make waves’ — don’t make too much noise, kind of keep your head down, just go by to get by,” said Phillips. “That’s definitely changing now. People are more willing to stand up, make their voices heard, say something, make some waves, and have that dramatic impact.”

Hawaii’s complicated relationship with tourism

Tourism is the state’s largest employer, so there is incentive to maintain a paradisiacal image for tourists. Last year’s visitor spend brought in $17.75 billion in revenue, generating $2.07 billion in state taxes. But for residents, it’s a double-edged sword: While many locals depend on the industry for their livelihoods, they often also find themselves displaced and subjugated by it.

For example, when a pandemic hits. Many felt that Gov. Ige’s lackluster initial response to the climbing number of Covid-19 cases — which was also criticized by state Senate and House officials for not doing more to impede travel — reflected his unwillingness to stymie the flow of tourism dollars. Despite urgent calls for the governor to immediately order the 14-day quarantine by the Senate Special Committee on Covid-19 — supported by the Airport Division of the Department of Transportation; Adjutant General Kenneth S. Hara, the incident commander of the Covid-19 response; and Lt. Gov. Josh Green, the state’s liaison for coronavirus prevention — a spokesperson for the governor said he was still weighing his options.

It took two days before he issued the mandatory quarantine, to go into effect five days later. And state Senate leader Ron Kouchi told Hawaii News Now that legislators had been urging the governor to issue a stay-at-home order for at least a week before he actually did. In that time, travel into the state continued uninterrupted.

While tourism in Hawaii is the state’s largest employer, it has also led to displacement and financial struggles for its residents.
George Rose/Getty Images

While tourism has contributed to the state’s consistently low unemployment rates, 48 percent of families with children do not make the minimum household budget to survive, according to a study of financial hardship in Hawaii. Adjusted to the cost of living, the highest in the country, Hawaii has the nation’s lowest minimum wage. A recent report estimated that a family of four would need to make upward of $80,000 a year to afford even a frugal lifestyle in Hawaii, nearly double what two adults would earn on the minimum wage right now. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of residents are struggling financially, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, living with relatives in multigenerational households (some of which is also based on tradition), and dipping into savings.

For the astronomical cost of living, all roads lead back to tourism — or, more accurately, to the state government’s apparent prioritization of tourism over its citizens. The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s (HTA) last Resident Sentiment Survey, in 2018, reported that two-thirds of respondents agreed with the sentiment, “This island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

Many residents were already struggling before the pandemic hit. Now, as families worry about not only financial ruin but also the spread of a virus that would ravage those multigenerational households, it’s no wonder that locals were angered to see tourists jamming the sidewalks and soaking up the sun in Waikiki, essentially carrying on like business as usual.

Protests put pressure on the governor to shut down travel

Two days before the Waikiki convoy, some 60 protesters stood outside the airport on the small neighboring island of Molokai to await disembarking tourists. Standing staggered for social distancing, the protesters held signs that read “Tourist stay home” and “Please keep your distance ocean length.” They said nothing to the tourists, who bowed their heads as they walked past, but the tension was palpable and the message was clear: Tourists were not welcome.

“If we waited for the government, we would wait till we got infected, and [only] then would they react,” Walter Ritte, a longtime activist who organized the protest, the first among the eight main islands to address shutting down tourism, told Vox.

The protest proved effective. Staff of Makani Kai Air, a smaller airline operating flight services to and from Molokai, later approached Ritte and told him they would only run essential flights from then on. Hotel Molokai, the only active hotel on the 260-square-mile island, followed suit and closed.

“Our hope was to create a spark,” said Ritte. “Hopefully, it would create a flame, and all of the other islands would get involved.” The next day, people on Maui started protesting, and Phillips’s convoy on Oahu followed that weekend.

The mounting pressure seemed to have worked. A day after the convoy took place, Ige ordered the 14-day mandatory quarantine, the first such measure in the nation. Two days after that, he issued a statewide stay-at-home order for both residents and tourists, noncompliance with which would be punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, up to one year in jail, or both.

But Ritte believes that even the quarantine order was a compromise. Criticizing the governor’s delay in implementing the quarantine, which was issued March 21 but didn’t go into effect for another five days, he said, “People’s lives are in danger, and [Ige’s] worried about giving [tourists] time to take care of their reservation.”

While the state admits that enforcement will be a challenge, Tim Sakahara, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, said that hotels, collaborating with the HTA, would call rooms at random times to ensure guests were staying in. What the process will be for visitors staying at short-term vacation rentals was unclear, but Kouchi told Vox over the phone, “The most effective way to track [visitors] is not having to track them [at all]. Flights are almost empty [now], which was the whole point of the 14-day quarantine.” The governor’s office did not reply to Vox’s request for comment on what was being done with the tourists who arrived before the quarantine was implemented.

“We do understand that a stay-at-home order has never been implemented in our communities,” Ige said in a press conference on March 23, two days before it went into effect. “I would like to say that when we first announced these actions, the compliance has been overwhelming.”

Honolulu police say they issued 70 citations for violating the stay-at-home order on the first day it went into effect, mostly at public parks. That same day, police on the island of Kauai initiated islandwide checkpoints, in which some 58 visitors islandwide were advised to return to their hotel and comply with the new stay-at-home guidelines.

Hawaii’s history of protest

Historically, Native Hawaiians (Kānaka Maoli) have always been active in galvanizing their communities to wield collective political power, well before the overthrow of 1893, when American and European businessmen, aided by the US military, staged a coup and forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate her throne, dissolving the Kingdom of Hawaii two years later. It might, then, seem easier to understand the colonial undertones of a people’s mistrust in the government by whom they feel dispossessed, as well as of the historical trauma tied to an “imported” disease making its way through the remote island chain.

“Hawaii’s tumultuous political history is easy to gloss over because it’s very easy to ignore this tiny little group of islands in the middle of the Pacific,” says Phillips. “So [community action] is an opportunity for us to amplify our image and make sure that people hear about and know about what’s going on here.”

Protest, in this way, is tradition.

Ritte has long been a central figure in contemporary Hawaiian political movements, protesting the US military’s bombing of the island of Kaho’olawe in the 1970s, the farming of genetically modified crops on Molokai, and, more recently, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the sacred site of Maunakea.

Demonstrators block a road on the Big Island’s Maunakea to protest the construction of a giant telescope on land that Native Hawaiians consider sacred, on August 5, 2019.
Caleb Jones/AP

Often framed as a battle between culture and progress, the legal fight for Maunakea has been ongoing for the better part of the last decade. (Maunakea is a proper noun; Mauna Kea, another common spelling, is a reference to any white mountain.) The $2.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) would become the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, but its proposed site is at the summit of Maunakea on Hawaii’s Big Island — a mountain revered in Hawaiian culture for sharing genealogical ties with Kānaka Maoli. While the project’s permit issuance had been contested on environmental and cultural grounds throughout, in 2018, a state Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for the project to proceed.

Things came to a head last July, however, when Ige announced TMT construction was cleared to begin. Kia’i, or protectors, formed a physical blockade on the single access road up to the summit, preventing construction crews from passing. Photos of Kānaka elders, or kūpuna, being arrested — their hands bound in zip ties, some using wheelchairs and walkers, while others were literally carried away — grabbed international headlines as public outrage rang out. An encampment, called Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu, quickly formed to hold the line thereafter.

The movement to protect Maunakea from desecration has galvanized Kānaka across the islands and across generations, as well as garnered staunch supporters abroad as it reached beyond its borders to link arms with other contemporary indigenous movements.

“We were the people that no one expected to rise the way that we did,” Pua Case, one of the leaders of the Protect Mauna Kea movement, told Vox. “We are there, as an extension of an ancestral right to safeguard what we hold dear and what we are genealogically connected to.”

For those not able to get to the Mauna, a convoy of hundreds of people was organized in a show of support for the kia‘i in September. While a convoy might appear like a strong-arm tactic to intimidate people, the convoy as a protest tool actually enjoys unique pride of place in recent community-led organizing in Hawaii.

Jamie Rodrigues, one of the Mauna convoy organizers, who also worked with Phillips for the Kū Kiaʻi Hawaiʻi convoy, told local news KITV4, “It’s a form of display that is unique to Oahu because we have such long roads, freeways. It made sense to utilize the resources on our island,” adding, “We wanted people to rally and share and show up with their innermost feelings and pride about being who they are.”

Another reason for more energized protest among Kānaka and locals in recent years: social media. “As a government official, I have a front-row seat to the state’s response, and as a community organizer, I’m in the middle of the people’s response,” Jabola-Carolus says. “I’ve been able to get information, but the public is in the dark, so disseminating information on social media has been a top priority for me.”

Social media, of course, is how Phillips got the word out about the Kū Kiaʻi Hawaiʻi convoy, and how Ritte gathered such a large group to meet him at Molokai Airport. It’s also how Pu’uhuluhulu communicates updates to its followers, such as its most recent decision to pack up the camp and abide by Ige’s stay-at-home order, out of safety for its kūpuna.

In the midst of this crisis, Jabola-Carolus uses her platform to elevate the “mainly women organizers mobilizing and unseen women in and out of government doing the heavy lifting.” Right now, she is most concerned about the disproportionate impact the coronavirus crisis will have on women.

“Hawaii has the highest concentration of multigenerational families in the United States,” she said. “With shelter-in-place and school closures, our crowded homes will need constant cleaning, prepared meals, and round-the-clock child care and elder care. The worst, hardest, and most tedious aspects of that labor will most likely fall to women.”

Neighboring Pacific island nations also brace for impact

The Hawaii government’s response to Covid-19 has lagged behind that of other islands swift to enact travel bans.

Its peers across the Pacific were some of the first to adopt strict containment measures, including suspending air travel, denying disembarkation of cruise ships, and refusing access to supply vessels. The Marshall Islands closed its borders with little warning, leaving visitors and returning Marshallese stranded in Honolulu and Guam. The country remains sealed off from all inbound air travel. French Polynesia, which has also experienced some crisis tourism, also imposed a travel ban, effective the same day, and began repatriating nonresidents immediately thereafter.

While Hawaii, unlike the other islands, can’t ban flights from coming in (only the federal government has jurisdiction over airspace), it has control over what visitors can do within its borders — and for that, it can readily take from its neighbors’ examples.

New Zealand has closed its borders, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying of the current national lockdown that she hoped to avoid “the scenes of Bondi Beach in New Zealand” by adopting the strictest recommended suppression measures. The country, which has an estimated 240,000 to 260,000 visitors within its borders as of late March, has recruited law enforcement to ensure tourists were complying.

In Hawaii, the stay-at-home order is now in effect, but the city and county of Honolulu has provided conflicting directives for how it will care for unsheltered persons in this crisis. Hawaii has the second-highest homeless population in the nation, the majority of which are Native Hawaiians. Phillips says he plans to join actions to ensure “that they’re not put under any extra trauma or duress, or [are] targeted and made more vulnerable to this virus.”

It’s not his job, of course, but communities in Hawaii have shown an extraordinary capacity to care for one another. “As unfortunate as it is that the community continues to be forced to act in its own defense,” Phillips said. “It’s also great because that means that every time we rise up, we bring more people along with us.”


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