From the plane, the island of Maui looks improbably small — you can spot the entire coastline through a single window. The tallest point of the island, Haleakala, reaches 10,000 feet into the air, and yet seemed, to this hiker cozy in her wing seat, walkable — like a moderate day hike rather than a high-altitude ascent.
In mid-July, my husband and I spent two weeks in Maui. The trip, which I’d booked at the end of March after receiving my second vaccine shot, was our first to Hawaii. My thinking had been this: I wanted to go somewhere that felt very different from home — skip the evergreens and chilly lakes for the kind of humidity that never leaves your skin — but I also wanted to go somewhere with the same vaccine opportunities. After a year of being grounded due to the pandemic, I wanted my travel to be as ethical as possible.
What I didn’t anticipate was how many people had the same idea. In the months and weeks and days leading up to the trip, I read that rental cars were hard to come by and astronomically expensive, restaurant reservations were booked months in advance and traffic was terrible. The problem was so bleak that the Maui mayor asked airlines to limit the number of flights to the island. The day before our trip, headlines announced that Upcountry residents were being asked not to wash their cars or water their lawns due to an unusual drought. Residents were upset that hotels seemed to take priority, while officials tried to clarify that tourists were not the reason for the shortage.
My news feed proclaimed that Maui was a circus; my Facebook ads were inviting me on a trip to paradise that I’d already booked.
At the airport, the reports of crowding seemed real; we spent 45 minutes waiting in line to have our vaccination status confirmed before being allowed outside, where the shuttle driver for our car rental also checked our vaccination status. From there, we picked up a 2013 Nissan Sentra — a budget option that had avoided the worst of the rental prices — to Lahaina, where we checked into an Airbnb in the Kahana neighborhood.
This is where my concerns about overcrowding dissipated. Snorkeling in the early morning, I was often one of the first people in the water, floating solo above humuhumunukunukuapua’a, or reef triggerfish, as they fed off the coral. In the heat of the day, the popular Black Rock Beach was less busy than some warm afternoons on Alki Beach. I’ve had more frustrating traffic experiences accessing trailheads on Interstate 90 than I did on the Road to Hana. Which is to say, as a visitor, Maui only felt busy in the way that most beautiful places do.
But the locals I spoke with agreed the number of tourists was out of hand.
Sheree White, who’s lived on the island for 45 years, is retired but works one day a week at an art gallery in Lahaina. “We’re all screaming right now,” she told me. The roads are congested, she explained, and she’d go to the grocery store to find that necessities are sold-out. (At a Safeway, my husband and I were surprised to find there wasn’t a lick of salt or sugar in the entire store.) She primarily blames the hotels and politicians, who she said have allowed too much growth.
Still, the tourists themselves make it tough, walking where they shouldn’t and wearing sunscreen that damages the reefs. She works in this part of town each week because she’s trying to remember that tourists aren’t all bad. After all, she travels, too. “I don’t want to have tourist rage,” she said. “We all have a right to enjoy other parts of the world.”
Donna Nelson, who was volunteering her time at the Huli Huli chicken shack on Koki Beach just past Hana, said visitors have slowed her travel time from a 10-minute drive to 45 minutes. “Tourists don’t know where to pull over on the side,” she said. On the one hand, the tourists bring in money, which the shack donates to support a reinstated, sovereign Hawaiian government. On the other hand, the Road to Hana has been both overwhelmed and neglected for the last five to six years. “We’re the ones who suffer,” she said. People should still come out, she says, but should “come with a smart mind.”
Meanwhile, many tourists are having a perfectly good time. Tom Paul, 57, lives in San Diego and has been traveling to Maui for 23 years. I met him when we were the first two people in the water at Honolua Bay, considered one of the best snorkeling spots on the island. I asked him how Maui felt this year.
“It feels the same as always,” he said. It was a little busier, the restaurants had long waits and he had to plan weeks ahead of time to get reservations at some key spots. But overall what he loves about the island is still there. “It’s just great ambience.” If anything, it’s the snorkeling that’s changed. “There’s a lot more dead coral,” he said. Even the spot we’d just dived, where I’d felt so surrounded by coral and striped, spotted and yellow fish that I struggled to move forward, had once been more alive, he said.
Shirley Joo from St. Louis, who I met on Lanai after we’d both spent the day driving its dirt roads, said her family had a remarkably good time. It was busy, but she expected that. “Anywhere that’s going to be nice, there’s going to be lots of tourists,” she said. And the extra steps the island was taking to screen visitors for vaccines or coronavirus tests — and the fact that so many locals had been vaccinated — helped her feel more at ease.
On another snorkel trip to Molokini Crater, I met Jeff and Megan Davis, who spent nine days between the Big Island and Maui with their two young daughters. They’ve been to Maui multiple times. Jeff said this year there was “borderline too much tourism.” Prices had doubled for ride-booking services from the airport, rental cars were booked and, most frustratingly, the state parks had reduced capacity. Many required reservations. Even still, the family had found workarounds when they hit a hurdle, like renting a local’s car through Turo.
Not everyone could excuse the island’s changes. Ashlin Gentry, who was visiting from Fort Worth, Texas, had traveled to Hawaii in 2008. This time around, she and her husband booked their trip six months in advance and managed to score reservations at every major destination, like Mama’s Fish House in Paia. But the news reports and Reddit threads she’d read had her wary. “I had a lot of anxiety about coming here,” she said.
That anxiety seemed to prove out. While some people were wonderful, a few interactions left her feeling unwelcome. They were shouted at on the Road to Hana, she said, and when she visited a smaller local bar, no one wanted to speak to her. “I think the assumption is that if you’re a visitor you’re not a good person,” she said. She felt it was unfair to blame travelers for things like littering when there were abandoned vehicles on the side of the road. She wouldn’t recommend someone visit. “Wait or find another destination.”
It was obvious that, as much as travelers were enjoying the island, visiting had ramifications. I wondered if there were anything tourists could do to make less of an impact on the island. This led me to Edwin “Ekolu” Lindsey at Maui Cultural Lands. He hosts several volunteer programs across the island restoring natural habitats.
Volunteer organizations like Lindsey’s have been rolled up into a new buzzword in travel: “regenerative tourism,” or the idea that we could leave a place better than we found it. Programs like Mālama Hawai‘i reward tourists with reduced hotel rates for volunteering, including Lindsey’s program. It’s considered the next step up from sustainable travel.
I met Lindsey at their Honokowai Valley location, where we learned about the native plants that were being outcompeted by invasive species, and how water politics had stopped the flow of the stream that once fed the valley’s taro terraces. That day, with a large group and limited tools, we spent a half-hour each actually uprooting grass — usually, folks work for at least 90 minutes. When the rest of the group drove off, we sat down under tree shade and he handed me a white flower, his favorite for making leis. I asked: Did he think it was possible for volunteer action to make up for the impacts of tourism on the island?
In a word, no. “But we can leave a smaller footprint,” he said.
Right now, the island is both struggling under the weight of increased tourism, and tourists aren’t having as good of a time, he explained. “We’re creating a pressure pump, and it’s going to explode at some point,” he said. He thinks the answer will require a combination of better-educated travelers, charging more money, and reducing the number of plane seats available to even get to Maui.
In the meantime, he hopes volunteer experiences like his can teach visitors to care about cultural and environmental resources. “There is a way to share the space and I think it starts with simple respect of resources and people in general,” he said.
As a traveler, I’m awestruck by places like Maui that remind me how beautiful the world can be. Walk the coastline and there’s a good chance you’ll see turtles bobbing just offshore. At Haleakala, you can walk above the clouds on the volcanic skeleton that made this island possible.
I want there to be a clean answer on how to travel responsibly. But whether it’s flying in a pandemic, the emissions required to travel 2,600 miles across the Pacific Ocean or vacationing in a place where locals are overwhelmed, we travelers are left to grapple with the fact that chasing our wonder comes with a cost. And mostly, we are not the ones who pay it.
Hawaii is the perfect microcosm for that delicate balance.