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Visiting the beautiful Hawaiian islands can be a dream come true, but as outsiders, we have to be thoughtful about respecting the land and native culture. By educating ourselves, supporting local businesses, and following cultural guidelines, we can fully enjoy Hawaii’s splendor without perpetuating harm.

If you’re short on time, here’s the key to visiting Hawaii respectfully: Research Hawaiian history, support local Hawaiian businesses over chains, follow cultural guidelines like asking permission before hiking sacred lands or visiting historical sites, and overall, listen more than assume.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the history of colonization in Hawaii, ways to educate yourself beforehand, tips for respecting the land and culture while visiting, supporting the local economy, and being an ally to native Hawaiians.

Understanding Hawaii’s History of Colonization

A Brief History of Colonization in Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands were first settled between 400 and 600 A.D. by Polynesian voyagers. For centuries, Native Hawaiians lived in a thriving and complex society with their own spiritual beliefs, social structure, art, and traditions.

This changed when Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, becoming the first European to encounter the Hawaiian Islands. Over the next century, American and European businessmen, missionaries, and plantation owners increasingly settled on the islands.

They brought diseases that ravaged the Native Hawaiian population, and they claimed huge amounts of land. By 1893, American businessmen working with the U.S. diplomat John L. Stevens had successfully overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy.

In 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii, stripping Native Hawaiians of self-governance. Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959 after a referendum in which Native Hawaiians were excluded from voting. This completed Hawaii’s colonization by the United States.

Lasting Impacts on Native Hawaiians

The colonization of Hawaii has had profound and lasting impacts. From having an estimated population between 400,000 and 800,000 in 1778, the Native Hawaiian population dropped to just 40,000 by 1890 due to introduced diseases.

Their language, cultural traditions, and way of life were also systematically suppressed under colonization.

Today, despite some cultural revitalization efforts, Native Hawaiians suffer higher rates of poverty and homelessness than other ethnic groups in Hawaii. Some progress has been made. For example, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, also known as the Akaka Bill, was introduced in Congress in 2000 to provide federal recognition of Native Hawaiians.

However, it has still not been enacted due to political opposition.

There are also now over 150 Hawaiian language immersion schools throughout Hawaii focused on reviving the Hawaiian language. But the legacy of colonization is still deeply felt among Native Hawaiians seeking self-determination and trying to address long-standing inequities linked back to Hawaii’s history.

To responsibly visit Hawaii today requires understanding this complex history. Tourists should educate themselves on Hawaii’s colonial past and respect the living Native Hawaiian culture. There are opportunities to support Native Hawaiian businesses and organizations.

And visitors should engage thoughtfully with the land, culture and people – both past and present – while visiting this unique place.

Educating Yourself Before Visiting Hawaii

Reading Recommendations

Before embarking on your Hawaiian vacation, take some time to read up on the history, culture, and current events of the islands. Some great books to pick up are “Aloha Betrayed” by Noenoe K. Silva, which covers the colonization of the islands, and “Folk Tales of Hawaii” by Frederick Wichman, which shares classic tales passed down through oral tradition.

These stories will give you insight into the native Hawaiian way of life.

Talking to Locals

In addition to reading, have conversations with Hawaiian locals or those familiar with the culture. Ask them questions to better comprehend political issues, meaningful cultural traditions, and faux pas to avoid.

The website Go Hawaii also has an informative culture section that teaches visitors about etiquette do’s and don’ts.

Learning Common Hawaiian Phrases

Show respect by learning basic Hawaiian words and phrases. Some key ones are “aloha” (hello/goodbye), “mahalo” (thank you), and “kokua” (help). Pronouncing names correctly is also important. Take the time to practice those tongue twisters!

When in doubt, ask someone to help you properly pronounce a word. The locals will appreciate your effort and willingness to embrace true Hawaiian language.

Respecting the Land and Culture During Your Visit

Visiting Sacred Places Respectfully

When visiting Hawaiian sacred sites like heiau (temples) and puʻuhonua (places of refuge), be aware that these areas hold deep spiritual meaning for Native Hawaiians. Treat them with the utmost respect by not removing rocks or other items, not entering restricted areas, and learning about the history from authorized local guides.

For example, the puʻuhonua at Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park was once a sanctuary for warriors and “kapu” (taboo) breakers. Visitors should appreciate its significance by having an attitude of humility and reverence.

Participating in Cultural Activities Appropriately

Immerse yourself respectfully in Native Hawaiian cultural practices like hula dances, lei making, and ukulele music. But understand the deeper meaning behind these activities – ask questions, do research beforehand, and participate only when invited by locals.

For instance, the Merrie Monarch Festival has competitive hula performances, but it also honors King David Kalākaua who helped revive Hawaiian culture. Appreciate both the beauty and history of such events.

Additionally, cultural activities on the islands provide income for local communities. Support them by purchasing services or handmade crafts directly from Native Hawaiians. This encourages cultural preservation while also helping support local economies.

Following Local Etiquette and Customs

Learn and follow etiquette on appropriate behavior in Hawaii. Some key things to know:

  • Ask permission before going onto private property or natural reserves. Trespassing is highly disrespectful.
  • When visiting sacred places, dress modestly and avoid loud conversations or disruptions.
  • Remove shoes before entering homes or sacred spaces when asked.
  • Learn about kapu taboos and avoid forbidden behaviors like gathering sand from beaches.
  • Respect “Kapu” signs which indicate dangers or mark significant sites that only authorized people may access.

Additionally, educate yourself on broader Hawaiian customs around greetings and gift-giving. For example, some common courtesies are:

Using shaka sign when greeting locals Bringing food or flower gifts when invited to homes
Addressing elders or officials by their title Learning Hawaiian words for thanks (mahalo), hello (aloha) etc.

Following local customs shows humbleness, appreciation for Native Hawaiian culture, and strengthens the spirit of aloha between visitors and residents.

Supporting the Local Economy

Staying at Native Hawaiian-Owned Accommodations

While visiting Hawaii, one great way to support the local economy is to stay at accommodations owned by Native Hawaiians (kānaka maoli). According to statistics from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Native Hawaiian-owned lodgings accounted for 15% of all visitor accommodations in 2019, but they have room to grow.

By choosing to support these establishments over foreign-owned big resort chains, not only will your money go directly back into the local community, but you will likely also receive a much more authentic cultural experience.

Eating at Local Restaurants and Food Trucks

Similarly, you can support Hawaiian small businesses by eating at locally-owned restaurants and food trucks during your stay. This allows you to taste delicious traditional dishes like lau lau, kalua pork, poke bowls, and shave ice while putting money into the pockets of hardworking island families instead of big chains.

Instafamous hotspots like Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck and Monkeypod Kitchen are mainly owned and staffed by local residents. For an array of the freshest seafood on Oahu directly from local fishermen, check out sites like Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering and Nico’s Pier 38.

Shopping at Farmer’s Markets and Native Businesses

In addition to food, shopping at farmer’s markets and Native Hawaiian-owned stores allows you to find one-of-a-kind locally made souvenirs and products you won’t find anywhere else. The islands have a thriving community of artisans and small businesses creating traditional Hawaiian quilts, wood carvings, natural skincare items, music, and more.

Spots like the King Kamehameha Farmer’s Market in Kona feature over 70 vendor booths. You can also make a positive impact by supporting social enterprises like MA‘O Organic Farms that empower at-risk youth through sustainable farming.

Being an Ally to Native Hawaiians

Listening More Than Assuming

When visiting Hawaii, it’s important to listen and learn from Native Hawaiians instead of making assumptions. According to a 2020 survey, over 80% of tourists said they felt more connected to Hawaiian culture after attending “talk story” sessions with locals.

By listening with an open mind, we can build bridges and understanding.

Amplifying Native Hawaiian Voices

A great way to support Native Hawaiians is to amplify their voices and causes on social media. For example, follow Native Hawaiian activists on Instagram and Facebook and share their posts to spread awareness.

According to a 2021 Pew Research study, around 70% of adults in the U.S. use social media, so posting and sharing can make a real impact.

Speaking Up Against Injustice

If we witness discrimination or injustice towards Native Hawaiians during our travels, it’s important we speak up. A 2020 survey found over 30% of Hawaiians said they face regular discrimination. Whether that’s a rude comment or unfair treatment in a store or restaurant, we should say something to support social change.

Hawaii depends heavily on tourism, so visitors play a key role in progress.


By educating ourselves on Hawaiian history, making conscientious choices to support the local economy, and following cultural guidelines with humility and respect, we can fully enjoy the richness of Hawaiian culture without causing harm.

Most importantly, we must listen to native voices and stand beside them in their fight against ongoing injustice.

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