Lahaina: What is the Take Away?

Me and my friend Narelle Flett in Maui, 2004

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).


Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement

Maui Strong Fund

Boys and Girls Clubs of Maui

Go Fund Me Hub for Maui Relief

Maui Mountain Cruisers

A Harbor in the Storm

Captain PAM
Disney Magic ’09 (Grand Cayman Island)

Most people who know me are aware that between 1991 and 2010 I worked on cruise ships. In fact, on April 4, 2020, I will celebrate 10 years since disembarking my last ship, the Disney Wonder.  In the midst of a global pandemic that emerged in part among passengers and crew on several cruise ships, my heart goes out to the thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods have been thrown into disarray by the suspending of cruises worldwide.  Many of these people make great sacrifice of time and distance from their families in order to collect the hard earned wages of shipboard life.  I will always have a tremendous feeling of solidarity with my fellow and former crew mates.  It is amazing work but it is also incredibly hard.  Today, as an ordained minister, I find it ironic and oddly comforting to draw on some of the unique training and life experience that were afforded me in that remarkable and exotic setting.

The highest rank that I achieved was Cruise Director which depending on the ship and the line meant that I was either a three or four stripe officer.  Although I did not have equal rank to the Captain or Chief Engineer, my job was no less important.  Beyond playing games and hosting parties and telling jokes on stage every night, my job was to be the voice of the ship and more crucially the voice of the ship in an emergency.  I needed to know how to communicate clearly and as calmly as possible.  I had to be able to work collaboratively under sometimes erratic situations.  I had to know how to give and receive orders and I had to know how to listen to people and superiors who might be reacting out of panic and anxiety.  I had to be able to engender trust and project calm.

Today as I consider how we are moving forward with our communities through the spread of the coronavirus, I draw on the training that prepared me for a potential mass evacuation at sea of up to 4000 people; or if the 94K ton ship ran aground or caught on fire; or if more than 50% of the shipboard passengers and crew became sick with norovirus stranding us at sea and a whole host of other kinds of disasters.

If we get mired in the anxiety of anticipating what might happen…we will become distracted and bogged down.

I took many lessons away from my shipboard training.  I learned that over communication can be as bad or worse than under communicating.  I learned that the people who are directly impacted by disaster know best what they need.  I learned that I can’t solve every problem or answer every question.  I learned that honesty is the only communication that matters in an emergency and that simplicity will always win the day.  And the biggest lesson I took away from all of my training for safety of life at sea was to remember the primary goal: save life.  No matter what it took, each life needed to be considered essential and important and every effort needed to be extended to try to preserve that life.  I think the lesson in this moment is similar in that we must keep focused on a goal.  We cannot get distracted.  If we get mired in the anxiety of anticipating what might happen or caught up in political wrangling, we will become distracted and bogged down.  We risk our own safety if we lose track of our goal.

Certainly, a significant and specific part of the goal today in the midst of coronavirus is the same one that we had at sea…save life.  But I think there is more at stake here.  We are in the midst of a vicious and bitter political election. Our government is paralyzed by division.  Our communities are suspicious of each other.  There is little trust in the news and the wider world around us.  Poverty, marginalization and erasure of whole populations have become rampant norms to which we have become numb.  Our mission in this moment therefore is far greater than just beating coronavirus.  I believe that if we are to achieve the goal of ultimately saving life from the disease, we must first remember an even bigger goal: being whole.  Being whole as a human race that is capable of recognizing each other, knowing each other as divine and precious and caring enough to try to preserve everyone who is at risk.  And let me be clear, being whole doesn’t mean being the same…in fact it is the opposite.  Being whole is having the space, the autonomy and the integrity to be totally and humanly different together.  This virus sees no race, ability, immigration status, gender, sexuality or political party.  The virus sees us as one whole human body and it wants to take over.  Therefore, in order to win this fight, we must first recognize some kind of unity between us in order to join ranks.  We cannot hoard resources or resist solutions because of where they originate.  We cannot monetize or commodify cures and vaccines with an eye to financial gain.  Our human wholeness is our most precious prize and our most bankable profit in and of itself.

We are all on this ship together.  I want to invite you to consider how each of us holds some responsibility for the safety of our shared life as humans on this voyage.  Let us find enough clarity in our minds and charity in our hearts to desire each other as co-beings…shipmates in this life and on this delicate vessel called Earth.  If we ignore the ultimate goal, that of being whole and united in our humanity, this virus, not to mention our own self-destructive tendencies, could truly signal the end of life as we know it.



Cruise Director
Disney Wonder ’10