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The State of Aloha

There’s an old picture of Kaanapali Beach that continues to amaze me. The black and white picture depicts a lonely, wide strip of golden sand sloping down into the clear waters between Maui and Molokai. Sparse clusters of swaying coconut trees are the only thing on the beach with Pu’u Keka’a, where Native Hawaiians believed spirits of the dead leapt into the afterlife.

The amazing part is what you don’t see. No one is in the photo. It’s completely devoid of people, pavement and resorts. The first hotel built at Black Rock was the Sheraton Maui Hotel in 1963. Others followed. Over the decades Kaanapali became a bustling place for vacationers to snorkel, shop and get a sunburn.

The same goes for Lahaina. In the 1960s and ’70s — before it was remade into a tourism destination — it was a quiet plantation town with a long history. Many of the stores along Front Street were boarded up. I marveled at the thought of Lahaina with no tourists and shops and stores that did not cater to them. For my entire life, tourists have always come to Maui.

Then COVID hit.

Last spring while the pandemic was still new and when the island’s tourism industry shut down, I needed to see it for myself. Our family packed up and headed west. We turned off the highway into Lahaina town.

Front Street was dead. The tourists were gone. The stores selling merchandise made in China or Indonesia that was meant to look like it was Hawaiian for folks from the Mainland were all closed. Restaurants were shuttered too. It might have been a disaster for the economy, but the eerie hush that descended over Front Street was astonishing.

It was even weirder at Black Rock. We walked the entire beach from the shopping center to a shady corner at the foot of the cliffs in front of the resorts nestled against the boulders without seeing a single person. We had the whole beach to ourselves. All you could hear was the sound of the waves lapping on the sandy shore.

I knew then that this was temporary. When the pandemic ends, they will come back. The stores will reopen and it will be business as usual. I was wrong.

They came early. The pandemic is far from over and the return of tourism to Maui feels like an invasion. Parking lots are so packed, the County Council is considering a measure to ensure public parking for residents. The streets of Paia, Kihei and Lahaina are choked with white shorts and Tevas, the unofficial uniform of visitors from the Mainland.

The reaction from local folks has been — to put it gently — mixed. Shopkeepers, hotel workers and others directly involved in the tourist industry are happy to be working again. Rental cars are hard to come by and hotel rates have skyrocketed. Business is picking up if you’re in the visitor industry.

Others say we aren’t ready to have the influx of visitors. Schools aren’t back. Sports for kids are still up in the air. Why cater to the visitors first? And who are these people coming over right now? The folks we see around the island are willing to risk sitting on a plane for at least five hours sharing everyone’s air, spend the money on testing and check into a hotel while the pandemic continues to infect and kill around the world. This traveler wants to see the sites, eat at restaurants and even go to luaus despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control that it may just be too early to go about life as usual. It’s no wonder folks around here aren’t happy to see them.

The anti-tourist sentiment has always bubbled a little beneath the surface in Hawai’i, but this feels different.

Last Saturday residents went to Wailea Beach in protest. All day long they went with beach chairs and signs demanding to take it back from hotels that occupy the beach with umbrellas and lounge chairs for their high-paying guests. The police were there with ATVs to make sure locals didn’t get unruly. Another protest is planned for Kaanapali soon. And in the Legislature, lawmakers introduced a bill proposing to cut the funding for the Hawai’i Tourism Authority.

The pandemic gave us an elusive glimpse of our islands without tourists (and an economy, for that matter). It got us wondering if the visitor industry, a powerful industry that has been part of our lives for so long in Hawai’i, is still worth it. It showed us what Black Rock, Lahaina and other spots normally overrun with traffic can look like without people in every nook and cranny. The lonely beaches and empty streets during the early months of the pandemic are becoming just a memory — a fond one at that.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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