I first experienced the island of Maui as many people in the mainland US have…through the lens of tourism. I was the First Assistant Cruise Director on the Radiance of the Seas cruise ship in 2004 and we had an overnight in Lahaina as part of our repositioning from Alaska to the Caribbean. Friends of mine convinced me to do the tour where you drive to the top of Haleakalā, witness the epic sunrise and then bike down the side of the volcano. Needless to say, I said yes and it is an experience that I took away with me and one that vividly remains with me to this day.
But this is the problem. So much of tourism, in Hawaii and beyond, is about what people take away. Experiences, goods, agriculture, culture; things that can be packed in a suitcase, a camera or an imagination. Tourism and in particular, cruising, is an entirely extractive industry. It does not produce a product, or cultivate better policy, or grow better crops. The large tourism corporations defend their business practices based on jobs and opportunities they create for “locals”. But the profit margin makes it clear that what they put into local economies is a tiny fraction of what they are able to take away.
Over a period of 19 years, I worked on cruise ships all around the world including being based in Hawaii for a time. My last ship was 13 years ago and a great deal has changed in the industry since then. During my final season in the Bahamas, the largest cruise ship in the world at that time, Oasis of the Seas (230k tons) was launched and I was berthed on the comparatively tiny Disney Wonder (83k tons) right next to it. In January of 2024 an even larger ship, Icon of the Seas (250k+ tons) will set sail. This is the culmination of a plan that was put forward by Royal Caribbean in the 1990s to make the ships the destinations unto themselves. More amenities, more desirable cabins, more entertainment; more everything…especially money in the pockets of the corporation and investors.
A cruise ship this large is problematic on many levels: port infrastructure, fuel consumption, waste production, the impact of 7000 people in tiny port destinations, sea life, you name it. These bigger and bigger ships with onboard surfing, ice skating, beaches, golf and even go-cart racing are becoming mobile island destinations unto themselves. The theme park at sea is designed to cater to the purely unfettered hedonistic desires of a consumer base with disposable income; and it is designed to contain that desire within the economic system of the cruise company. It is capitalism exercising all of its most dynamic traits: competition, market control, profit for profit sake, etc.
There is also a less visible way in which the current trend in cruising is problematic. With these impossible vessels, the cruise industry is creating a tourist that is more and more focused on self-pleasure, and self-curated experiences. Increasingly, what people want to take away from their cruise is a personal experience that is entirely about escape and indulgence (unlimited drinks packages, 24 hour buffets, etc.) We saw this trend over 10 years ago on board and now it has become a standard. Like Instagram and other apps, the tourist desire is being directed toward the bespoke…even if it means being bespoke in a herd of 7000 other cruisers.
This trend in tourism contributes to willful and dangerous ignorance. No more are people cruising to explore. They are only invested in filling a literal and emotional scrapbook with feel good moments that present no challenges to their sense of entitlement as travelers. The self-directed vacationing public doesn’t want to know about colonial histories, genocide, cultural erasure, poverty and true ecological impact. They just want their cruise. They may want to know about the environment in different places (swim with dolphins, snorkel on a reef), but they don’t get the irony of going on an eco tour only to return to a diesel powered ship that creates enough food waste in a day to feed a small country and enough human waste to choke the Colorado River.
Ultimately, the increasingly blindered, selective, and self-curated approach to tourism means that the average tourist has no concept of the actual lives lived in the Edenic places they might visit. And they feel it is their right to be blissfully unaware this way. They’ve paid for it. Sadly, this means that a natural disaster such as Lahaina being erased by wildfires holds some complex dynamics with this kind of business model and consumer as a backdrop to its economic recovery.
Lahaina has many advantages. It is a US port and has access to US government disaster funding. It is accessible by boat and airplane. It has robust infrastructure. Internationally, Maui as one of the Hawaiian Islands does not face the same racialized policies of support as a Haiti, Cuba or Jamaica (although US Puerto Rico very much does). But those advantages do not limit the trauma of the sudden loss of life and total displacement. People live in Lahaina. Workaday, everyday people, living paycheck to paycheck, tour group to tour group. Surely, people and corporations will care and are already coming forward with aid. But the ethical question must be asked: are these outside companies doing so simply to be able to continue generating wealth of their own? Do they care about the people, or are they merely trying to put the conveyor belt back in place in order to have something to take away?
It may be instructive for tourists, tourism companies and those interested in providing assistance to explore an initiative put forward a couple of years ago. In 2021 the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority launched their Educational Mālama Hawai‘i Campaign. From the campaign press release:
Hawai‘i is inviting travelers to experience the Hawaiian Islands on a deeper level with a greater emphasis on connecting with our culture, giving back to the destination and preserving it for the future, while following safe health practices.
In the midst of the pandemic, tourism took a major hit globally, including Hawaii. What seems apparent is that tourism and trade leaders in Hawaii recognized an opportunity to initiate something of a reset. Instead of worrying first about profit, the concern from this program is about relationship and care. In addition to community and corporate partnerships, and information, this campaign includes a series of videos to educate new travelers to the islands about the concept of Mālama, a word that means “to take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve, protect”. The Mālama Learning Center in Oahu offers an introductory explanation of the word and the spirit behind it on their website:
Referencing an action, a person, a way of life… mālama relates to our environment, culture, and everything with which we interact. It is something we all should do more of everyday….
Our inspiration for the Mālama Learning Center comes from many sources. Perhaps the greatest source is the understanding that we need to leave Hawai‘i as a place that is worthy of future generations to live in and enjoy. Indeed, this is not a unique thought, but it is one that has become increasingly difficult to manifest. In joining with others, like those involved with Mālama Hawai‘i, the Mālama Learning Center can be a living laboratory of understanding for ways to better care for ourselves and our island home.
The Learning Center’s work is expansive and important including school programs, environment regeneration programs and community engagement. In short Mālama is the antithesis of tourist-style, selfish taking away. It is inviting relationship. Much of the world that is exploited by tourism (Hawaii, Caribbean, etc.) could do with a healthy dose of Mālama.
I am lucky to have been able to return to Hawaii outside of the context of cruising. I am changed for that experience. I have grown over my many years of non-cruising engagement. Both in the islands and in other parts of the world, I have been gifted with relationships with native Hawaiian people. Their influence informs how I travel in the world now and makes me see my decades of cruise employment in a new light; not so much with shame as with the capacity to understanding that kind of travel as only a starting point. Although the big take away from my first trip to Maui will always be a crazy bike ride down a volcano, I have learned that it is much more important to carry the people, the learning and the living of Hawaii with me in relationship. This is not something I take away, it is woven into me.
If one wants to truly help Lahaina we can learn from Hawaiian culture. Real and sustained help is not possible through the blinders of tourism. As they say on the Learning Center website: Mālama ia Hawai‘i (take care of Hawai‘i).