Honoring Culture and the Environment on your Trip to Hawaiʻi

How to travel to Hawai’i and respect both the environment and culture

by Sachi Edwards

Editor’s Note: In 2019, over 10.2 million visitors from all over the world visited Hawai’i. Bringing in billions of dollars in tax revenue, tourism is, no doubt, a hugely important part of the state’s economy (around 20% in fact). But there are some major pitfalls to tourism in the state including the negative impact on the Native Hawaiian community and culture as well as the environment. 

In this Sustainable Tourism Study’s Native Hawaiian Advisory Group report from 2004, the historical context posed is that many of the top industries in the state in the 20th century (sugar, pineapple, military, and now tourism as the top industry) served to alienate Native Hawaiians from the land that was a part of their way of life.

It is for this reason that our inaugural location spotlight for our Conscious Travel column is focused on Hawai’i. Sachi Edwardswho was born on the Island of Hawai’i and grew up on O’ahuprovides her insights on how to reframe how we visit Hawai’i and how it can lead to more meaningful experiences, while also still having a relaxing and fun vacation.

While the main recommendations of specific sites to visit are on O’ahu, much of the information provided is relevant to travel on all of Hawai’i. If you’re visiting other islands in the archipelago, we encourage you to think about how the tips provided can apply there as well.


What I love about Hawai’i is how easy and common it is to spend time outdoors. And I don’t just mean going for walks around the neighborhood, or how most of our malls and schools have an open-air design, I mean that our proximity to beaches, hiking trails, and valley streams makes it convenient to build in outdoor adventure time into our day-to-day routines. For instance, I can get up early and hike up a ridge to one of the many gorgeous views of the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline and still be home before my kids have finished breakfast. Or, I can pack a picnic, load the kids in our wagon, and walk a few blocks to the beach for a view of the sunset while we eat dinner. I know that these are the kinds of experiences that  bring people to Hawai’i, so I don’t take for granted that they are what makes Hawai’i an amazing place to live. 

With coronavirus, there have been conversations locally about how to rebuild the tourism economy and using this crisis as an opportunity to totally reimagine how we approach it. There have been lots of calls to create a new form of tourism. It would be a shift toward niche and culturally rich experiences, rather than a surface-level beach vacation where tourists are seeking out the cheapest accommodations, cheap and/or chain restaurants, and cheap souvenirs. It’d be more about the depth of the experiences and learning to appreciate Hawaiʻi on a more historical level.

I hope that’s the direction we move in. But, even if the tourist industry in Hawai’i doesn’t go in that direction completely, I think folks could try to approach their travel to Hawai’i in a way that’s more aligned with that. 


Understand the Native  Hawaiian Relationship to Nature

One of the main reasons I love living in Hawai’i and why travelers come here is nature. Practically speaking, we get to interact with nature more frequently in our daily lives. But also, if you take the time to learn about the historical and genealogical significance of the land, sea, and other elements of the environment you see in Hawai’i, there is an additional level of awe and respect for nature that you develop.

In Hawaiʻi, literally everywhere you go has historical and genealogical value to Native Hawaiians. For Native Hawaiians, the nature around youthe mountains, the plants, the animals—are not just important for their ecological value, they are ancestors. In that way, treating nature with respect is not just about environmental sustainability, it’s about honoring your responsibility as a descendant of these aspects of nature. For example, the taro plant is considered the older brother of all Native Hawaiian people. (You can learn a bit more about that here.)

Before white colonizers and missionaries came and imposed their own system of land ownership, land use in Hawaiʻi was organized by Ahupua’a.

Learning about Ahupua’a and Land Ownership in Hawaiʻi 
Ahupua’a of O’ahu; Source: Mliu92 / CC BY-SA (

Ahupua’a was a system that divided the island into pie slices, of sorts, so that there was a stretch of land from the tip of the mountain all the way to the ocean. Communities and networks of families would cooperate together within this pie slice because they’d have the water source coming from the mountain, the plains to cultivate crops, and the ocean to fish. Operating in this way required a complex understanding of the whole ecosystem, and how to sustain the community without depleting resources. 

Recognizing that this system was once in place, but was forcibly replaced by the Western concept of private land ownership, requires acknowledging that much of the land on these islands was effectively stolen and re-appropriated in ways that have disadvantaged Native Hawaiians. 

I highly recommend visitors learn more about this history. Starting your trip to O’ahu at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu can help give that context and it can be the lens through which they experience and see nature during their visit.

With that understanding, while you enjoy the amazing nature experiences that Hawai’i has to offer, you can think about the ways these lands were formerly used, identify the ecological connections between the mountains and the beaches you are seeing, remember the sordid history of land ownership policies, and then support the local economy in ways that revive Native Hawaiian ecological practices rather than destroy them. 

Cultural Practices and Environmental Stewardship

There are some important cultural practicesall rooted in the natural environment within and surrounding Hawai’ithat tell a more complete story of Native Hawaiian culture. These cultural practices are also strongly rooted in environmental stewardship. Visitors and residents alike can take cues from traditional Hawaiian knowledge of the land and the sea to inform the way we think about the islands.

Here are some examples of cultural practices that can help inform the way we experience Hawai’i.


There’s a long tradition of fishing and making fish ponds and building fish walls. Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners know where to fish, when to fish, and how to fish, in a way that’s sustainable. While modern-day fishing practices (read: unsustainable) have taken over, visitors to Hawai’i can be aware of how the seafood they are eating is caught and to be aware of conservation efforts to ensure greater respect for traditional fishing practices.


While Hawai’i is known now for pineapples, those were, in fact, imported. You can read more below about how to reframe your idea of pineapples, but the traditional Hawaiian farming practices currently offer important insights to sustainable agricultural practices today that are worth exploring as a visitor.

Navigation and Wayfinding
Mau Star Compass: a recreation of the star compass created by Mau Piailug, a Micronesian navigator to taught celestial navigation and helped keep the art form and practice alive.

Ancient Polynesians used celestial navigation to explore and travel throughout the 6 million square miles of open ocean and islands that make up the Polynesian Triangle. The art of traditional Polynesian wayfinding is being kept alive by Native Hawaiians such as master navigator, Nainoa Thompson, who spent three years navigating around the world in the traditional Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Hōkūleʻa. You can learn more about this amazing traditional artform that’s unique to the Pacific region through the Polynesian Voyaging Society (based in O’ahu) and Hui O Wa’a Kaulua (based in Maui).




Tips to Honor Traditional Hawaiian Respect for the Land
Eat local

Seek out restaurants that utilize local produce from farmers and be aware of what’s in season and what is grown in Hawai’i. This is a great opportunity to choose something new to you or your kids like lychee or breadfruit (you can find some tips on eating local fruit in Hawai’i here and here). Some of my favorite restaurants include Mother Bake Shop (the absolute best vegan pastries I’ve ever had), ‘Ai Love Nalo (also vegan), Town (an excellent date night choice), and the take-away counter at any Down To Earth location (this is a grocery store, but the made-to-order food options are amazing!).  This Spruce Eats article also has some great info about local food on various islands. Here are some tips to ensure you’re finding good, sustainably grown local food:

    • Buy your produce and meat from the local farmer’s market: This is a way you can ensure your meals cooked at your rental are sustainably raised, local, and seasonal to the region.
    • Look for restaurants that partner with Ma’o Organic Farms. I do this for several reasons: (1) it’s Native Hawaiian owned and operated, (2) it’s organic certified, (3) it is located on the Waianae coast that has the largest Native Hawaiian population in the world, and has created many jobs for the community, and (4) it does a lot of school partnership work at all levels K-20, including an internship program where they’ll pay for college tuition; many of these interns use their degree programs to learn skills to help run various elements of the farm and continue working there after graduation. 
    • Print out this Seafood Watch guide on Hawaii: Seafood Watch provides guidance on the most sustainable and humanely caught seafood for each region (check back regularly for updated guides at their consumer guides page)
Use reef-safe sunscreen

While Hawai’i has banned the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxatewhich are known to cause coral reef bleachingtourists can still bring those sunscreens from the mainland. So make sure that your sunscreen follows those standards. You can find some details on the best sunscreens for the environment (and your health!) here and here.

Be mindful of what you bring into Hawai’i

Be aware of what sort of policies we have in place to try to protect ourselves and things you shouldn’t bring. You can find the general requirements and list of prohibited items here at the State of Hawai’i Plant Industry Division website. Additionally, please being mindful when you go on a hike to scrub your shoes and take precautions (these Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources Signs will be a helpful reminder) so that you’re not spreading certain types of diseases we’re trying to control.

Don’t use single-use plastics or litter

These are good tips for everyday life, but let Hawai’i’s intrinsic connection to nature inspire you. We recently passed an outright ban on single-use plastics for food service and ask that visitors also do their part. 

Reframing the Popular Tourist Attractions and Activities

One great way to start is to reframe how you approach common tourist attractions. I wouldn’t necessarily discourage participation in some of these activities, but to have a more nuanced and informed view of what they mean for Hawaiian culture. Here are some examples of how to do that:

Lūʻau and Traditional Hawaiian Dance

Before going to a Lūʻau, understand that the food and hula youʻll see were originally part of a religious practice that has very significant spiritual and cultural value. Of course it’s enjoyable to take part, to eat the food and watch the hula, but it’s so much more than just entertainment.

Artisan Crafts

I encourage you to forgo the cheaper replicas of artisan crafts. While the traditional crafts are much more expensive, you’d be participating in a thriving artistic practice. These cultural practices are upheld by families and practitioners that are trained in the specific art form. Examples include making cloth out of bark (kapa), making dyes to color the cloth out of various natural elements like roots and flowers, and weaving dried leaves (lauhala) into mats, hats, jewelry, and a wide range of other items. There are galleries all around Hawai’i that sell some of the more intricate pieces at higher prices (including Waikiki). However, you can find crafts by artisans in various ways. This article has a list of shops on each island that carry beautiful, local crafts. Additionally, you can keep an eye out for events and markets organized by the Handcrafters and Artisans’ Alliance (they hold a market one weekend a month in Waikiki in Honolulu among other events).    

Avoid the Pineapple Industry

I would encourage visitors to reject the idea of the pineapple as a symbol of Hawaiʻi altogether (and especially to not visit the Dole Plantation). Pineapples are not native to Hawaiʻi. They were brought here for the purpose of building plantations, and abusing both human beings and the local environment for the sake of economic gain that did not benefit Hawaiians. Things like taro, breadfruit, and sweet potato are more appropriate to think of as traditional Hawaiian food sources. Learn more about the problematic history of the pineapple industry here

Skip the Polynesian Cultural Center

While this is a popular place to visit, it has problematic roots. Itʻs run and staffed almost entirely by the members of the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church has historically (and still currently) aggressively proselytizes in the Pacific region and, as such, has played a prominent role in creating tension among Native Hawaiian and other Polynesian communities with regard to traditional religion and spiritual practices.

Alternatives to Typical Tourist Activities

Here are some really great alternatives that offer culturally relevant and complex history context and help support native Hawaiian communities locally.

  • Bishop Museum (O’ahu): This is the Hawai’i State Museum of Natural and Cultural History. I highly recommend starting your visit to O’ahu here as it provides so much of that context above in a deep and beautiful way.
  • Iolani Palace (O’ahu): This is the residence of Queen Lili’uokalani when she was overthrown illegally by the U.S. government in 1893. The queen was put into prison in her own palace. They now welcome visitors where you can see the room in which she was imprisoned and learn about the Hawaiian kingdom before it was overthrown and see some of the things she was working on.
  • Pu’uhonua Society (O’ahu): They offer great cultural arts classes and workshops to dive deeper into traditional Hawaiian crafts.
  • Blue Note Hawaii (O’ahu): Buy tickets to see Hawaiian musicians play live at Blue Note Hawaii (you can sort their schedule by genre). I would say this for any island: find out where there are Native Hawaiian musicians playing and support them by buying a ticket to their shows.
  • ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center (Hawaiʻi Island): Learn about Hawai’i’s legacy of exploration.
  • Botanical Gardens (Any island): Each island has beautiful botanical gardens that offer tours and workshops to learn about native plants and ecosystems which are unique to every island and can vary greatly throughout the islands as well.
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens, O’ahu

Books and Resources to Learn about Hawai’i

Books and other media are amazing ways to learn about Hawai’i. Here are my top recommendations for kids and adults.

Kids Books about Hawaiʻi
Books for Adults about Hawaiʻi
Queen Lili’uokalani
  • Hawaiʻi’s Story by Hawaiʻi’s Queen by Queen Lili’uokalani: An autobiography, of sorts, written by Queen Liliʻuokalani, who was the reigning monarch when Hawaiʻi was illegally overthrown. She tells the story of her life, but also of the events leading up to and through the overthrow, from her perspective.
  • From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaiʻi by Haunani-Kay Trask (award-winning scholar-activist Haunani-Kay Trask, Professor Emeritus of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi): A detailed and revealing critique of the colonial history of Hawaiʻi, and the political and cultural oppression of Native Hawaiians. 
  • Honor Killing by David E. Stanndard (Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaiʻi and is Haunani-Kay Traskʻs long-term partner): The story of Joseph Kahahawai (often referred to as the Emmett Till of Hawaiʻi, although his murder happened 23 years before Emmett Till’s) and provides great insight into the race relations that exist/persist in Hawaiʻi. 
  • Moloka’i by Alan Brennert: This novel spans decades following the life of Rachel Kalama, a seven-year-old Hawaiian girl who ends up in the quarantined leprosy settlement of Kalaupapa, Moloka’i. It is not only beautifully written, it also explores so much of the late 19th century/early 20th century history of Hawai’i.
  • Honolulu by Alan Brennert: Set in Hawai’i in the early 20th century, the story follows Jin, a Korean “picture bride” who creates a life in Hawai’i. This novel also explores a similar period of time as Moloka’i but from an important and distinct perspective weaving in historical events and people fluidly throughout.
Video Resources
  • Puʻuhonua ʻO Puʻuhuluhuluʻs website has a short video explaining the ongoing (and currently heightened) resistance against desecration on Mauna Kea, as well as some archived videos of featured lessons from the university established at the camp. Thereʻs also a link to donate. Please do so, because those who have been arrested need to pay their legal fees, and many people have lost their jobs because they have dedicated their energies full-time to protecting this sacred and ecologically invaluable mountain. 
  • Standing on Sacred Ground, an episode in the Islands of Sanctuary docuseries, is about the island of Kahoʻolawe, the role of Christianity in severing the spiritual relationship Hawaiians had/have with their lands, and the way the U.S. military used it for weapons testing. 
Social  Media Accounts to Follow

Thank You for Learning Deeply about Hawai’i

Iʻve spent most of my life here in Hawaiʻi, and I still feel like I have much to learn about the history and current socio-political issues at play. I am not Native Hawaiian, but since I consider Hawaiʻi home, I take very seriously my responsibility to learn about and disrupt the ongoing and deeply embedded settler colonialism that Native Hawaiians have been resisting since before the illegal overthrow of their kingdom. 

Part of this learning process has been to dig deeper into my own familyʻs history; to think more critically about what my familyʻs presence (for five generations now) has meant for Native Hawaiians. Similarly, I invite you to think critically about what being here as a tourist means for the indigenous peoples of this land and to do your best to support the Native Hawaiian community during your visit. 



Sachi Edwards was born on the Island of Hawai’i and grew up on O’ahu. She currently lives on O’ahu with her husband, Brent, and her two sons, Bodhi (5) and Kenji (2). Sachi is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Tokyo. She travels to Tokyo every few months and her family will be relocating there soon as she enters a tenure-track faculty role. Sachi, while acknowledging she might be just a little biased, thinks that the corner of the island where she lives (the southeast corner of O’ahu) is the most beautiful part of Hawai’i because there are so many nice beaches and mountains nearby where they can easily do a hike and go to the beach, and still be home for lunch.


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