Top Picks For You
Hawaii Travel Guide

Coronavirus Has Revealed How Bad Hawaii’s Tourism Problem Really Is

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, tourists are showing Hawaii residents what they really think of them—and it’s not pretty.

The past two months have shown the world just how utterly messed up it is—from inept leaders and politicians to smog-free days in Los Angeles, this virus has pulled back the curtain on the so-called wizards that make the choices that affect the lives of our planet and its people. It has revealed the greed and imbalance that has plagued us all for too long. Sadly, we probably won’t learn too much from this. China’s wet markets and the assault on wildlife will continue, white-collar workers will go back to spending hours each day commuting to do a job that can easily be done remotely, and our politicians will continue to fan the flames of bipartisanship, treating constituents like they’re one big experiment and using their lives as another way to benefit financially. For those of us in Hawaii, the global pandemic has exposed something else for our small, island state—it is utterly at the mercy of tourism and tourists, and that can no longer be the case.

Hawaii currently has the highest unemployment rate in the United States at 37%, with many still waiting to file claims because of overloaded websites and staffing shortages. That rate is usually lower than 3%, while the nation’s average unemployment is around 4.4%. Tourism accounts for approximately 20% of the state’s economy, though that number can be somewhat hard to rely on because tourism touches so many areas of the economy. It has been the largest industry in Hawaii since statehood in 1959.

Continue Reading Article After Our Video

Recommended Fodor’s Video

In recent years, other major events, natural disasters, left huge impacts on Hawaii: the unprecedented floods in Kauai and the eruption of the Kilauea Volcano, both in 2018, had serious economic impacts on the affected communities. The past three years have made it clear that this sort of dependence on an industry that is so dramatically affected by a variety of external factors is dangerous for this state to rely upon.

Aside from the economic impact of so many of Hawaii’s people losing work because tourism gets shut down, Hawaii’s dependence on tourism has had a much more significant impact—it has emboldened the entitled to use it as their playground and quarantine getaway, with very little regard for its people.

The examples are numerous, and as much as I’d love to call out the woman who bragged on her TikTok about how empty and cheap her flight was from Boston to Honolulu, or the mommy blogger who brought her whole family to Maui during the pandemic and actively brushed off criticisms, I won’t—the internet has handled them for us.

For those of us in Hawaii, the global pandemic has exposed something else for our small, island state—it is utterly at the mercy of tourism and tourists, and that can no longer be the case.

However, I am more than happy to call out the marketing company that was dumb enough to bring their firm to Hawaii from Baltimore and actively brag about their callousness on their social media channels. Uprooted Platinum flaunted their work vacation and laughed about their private beach (though they didn’t actually have a private beach) while continuously violating quarantine restrictions. Since their brazen displays, they have taken down all of their social media pages and their website. So maybe they weren’t that great at marketing, after all.

And yet, they keep coming. One couple was arrested in Waikiki this week after flaunting their refusal to adhere to the current visitor self-quarantine all over social media, then hopping from hotel to hotel to avoid suspicion. That couple, who were from Las Vegas and Australia, were then sent home. Another couple from California was arrested in Waikiki after allegedly violating the rules for an entire week. Three others were arrested at a hotel pool in Hilo, visitors from Washington who violated quarantine. Those who are coming to Hawaii because they are homeless and want to ride things out in the tropics are being sent back to their place of origin (using funds from the Hawaii Tourism Authority).

Since Hawaii’s governor enacted mandatory 14-day quarantine restrictions on March 26, Hawaii has continued to see an average of 130 visitors per day. Compare that to this time last year when that number was 30,000 people per day and it seems like nothing, but it is still something. That means that 130 people each day have dismissed the health and well-being of Hawaii’s citizens for their own benefit and pleasure. And that is about as far away from aloha as one can get.

Maybe I should take a step back for a second because there has been a lot of information to unpack since this pandemic has started. Maybe you don’t understand why Hawaii residents don’t want visitors right now, why “Hawaii is Closed” adorns social media profiles as far as the internet can see. It’s simple, really: it’s about a lack of resources. Hawaii has 340 intensive care unit beds and 561 ventilators, the majority of which are on Oahu. On top of that, the supply lines in Hawaii are limited—we depend on air transport and a few ships each week to bring in goods; we don’t have those interstate-traveling big rigs that the rest of the U.S. can rely on. Our toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortages started at least a full week before people started hoarding in the continental U.S. We don’t have enough supplies for our own homes, much less vacation rentals full of tourists.

In addition to the lack of resources, reports of tourists waiting out the pandemic at the few resorts that remain open include awful experiences interacting with guests. One resort employee told local ABC affiliate KITV that “a guest from San Francisco used racial slurs and said hotel staff should be grateful that tourists give them jobs.” She said that guests are extending their stays, but are ignoring restrictions on where they can go. She also didn’t shy away from calling some guests “rude and abusive.”

So, you can see why Hawai‘i would prefer to be closed right now.

And try as they might, our state and local governments have not come up with a solution to keep visitors away. As a state, Hawaii has no authority to shut down federal air travel for visitors (though Oahu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the mayors of Maui and Kauai, as well as the Hawaii Island county council, have asked the Trump administration, to no avail). They have, however, managed to shut down interisland travel, requiring all but a few types of people to enter 14-day quarantine while traveling to and amongst the islands (including residents). Visitors are required to quarantine in their hotels, while residents must stay in their homes. Before those measures were enacted, Hawaii residents took it upon themselves to send a message to tourists who tried to come during the pandemic by protesting at airports and along Honolulu’s highways.

Gradually, stronger efforts have been made. The Hawaii National Guard has been activated to help monitor checkpoints and screen visitors at the airport. The police are screening people as they try to enter certain areas, like the famed Hana Highway in Maui, ensuring that potentially sick visitors cannot access the remote parts of the island that have limited access to health care. State government is looking at limiting hotel reservations. Law enforcement is cracking down on violators. In early April, the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau put out a request to 170 top publications and trade magazines, asking them to stop promoting Hawaii right now. And yet, they keep coming.

Vacation rentals have been designated as non-essential businesses in hopes of keeping visitors out, but it’s proving to be a lot easier said than done (which seems to always be the case when it comes to regulating vacation rentals). When visitors enter Hawaii, they fill out an agriculture form to help prevent unregulated plants and animals from entering. Now, these forms are being used to help track visitors and enforce the 14-day quarantine, but there are some serious flaws with that system—illegal vacation rentals have a regular address like any other home, so it’s difficult to identify them. New steps are being taken to research each individual and address, but plenty of people have fallen through the cracks already, setting up shop in Hawaiian homes (almost 70% of which are owned by people who live off-island), and skirting that 14-day quarantine.

You would think that the hotels would be easier to monitor, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Hotel employees have told local media that many hotels are doing almost nothing to enforce the quarantine, basically limiting their participation in regulation to handing guests a piece of paper with state and local rules and leaving them to it. The lack of monitoring means that the 14-day quarantine is almost useless once a person arrives, though it has clearly served as a deterrent for most people who consider traveling to Hawaii. That said, one of the high-profile quarantine violation arrests this week was due to a hotel manager calling the authorities on the California couple that flaunted quarantine for over a week. Not everyone is out to make a buck at the risk of Hawaiian lives.

Just because you can get away with something, doesn’t mean you should still do it. Just because it’s legal or allowed, doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

At the time of publication, Hawaii’s coronavirus cases were just over 604, with 14 total deaths. On Oahu, where the majority of the cases are, Mayor Caldwell just extended the stay-at-home order to May 30, with a few relaxations of requirements. Non-essential businesses are closed. Beaches are closed for lounging (though people can swim and exercise in the ocean). Some parks are soon to reopen for exercise, but most people don’t come here to exercise in our parks. Hotels are not allowed to operate restaurants, gyms, or pools. And yet, they keep coming.

Polite requests to not come to Hawaii, or at the very least to go through the mandatory 14-day quarantine, are not being heeded. Tourism is rearing its ugly head during this pandemic. This continued deep lack of respect for a place that isn’t just a vacation stomping ground, but a place of immense cultural, historical, and spiritual significance for the people who come from there and live there makes it quite clear that Hawaii needs to significantly pull back on its reliance on tourism. And of course, these issues are far from new.

But what does that mean for Hawaii? In addition to tourism, the top industries for the state include defense, agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, and power. Strengthening the defense industry in Hawaii is not something that many Hawaii residents will advocate for, and sadly power, especially green power, has proven to be highly problematic when it comes to the concerns of Hawaii’s people. Of the remaining industries, agriculture seems to be the top choice among politicians and citizens in giving Hawaii a fighting chance in shaking off the yoke of tourism.

Hawaii imports approximately 90% of its food, a number that continues to astonish those who live here and see the bounty that these islands can produce. There are more than 200 varieties of avocado that grow in Hawaii—and we’re not talking about those little Haas ones that people love. We’re talking indulgent, buttery fruits that can grow so big that they set Guinness World Records, like this 5.6 pounder did last year. Hawaii Island alone is home to 10 of the 14 microclimates of the world, many of which are wonderful for growing a variety of foods.

This shift is currently at the top of the to-do list for many lawmakers. One citizen, new to politics, is running for Mayor of Hawaii County (on Hawaii Island) and is advocating for greater agricultural initiatives. Ikaika Marzo also happens to be a tour guide operator.

“An event like this pandemic truly shows us how much our econmy [sic] relies on tourism, and as a local tour owner and operator myself, I’m here to say that is not right, not an ideal way for a county to be structured–we are so much MORE than our in-n-out tourists who spend money here. We have many other options that could still be booming right now, right through this pandemic, and could factor into helping the rest of the mainland US which had to temporarily cut off imports from foreign countries,” Marzo wrote on a recent Facebook post, a video of him walking around a deserted downtown Hilo and stopping at the local farmer’s market (ironically, a popular tourist attraction) while discussing agriculture.

“So, if you hope to receive some of our aloha…it is imperative that you come here ready to share some aloha of your own.

In addition to focusing on other industries, Hawaii needs to put more effort into educating visitors to ensure that its people and places are receiving the respect that they deserve. The Hawaii Tourism Authority is working on long-term, strategic plans to focus on sustainability in travel as their primary concern, including greater investments in culture and natural resources, and considering local communities and their priorities more. Some in the tourism industry are even discussing implementing more models like the one at Hanauma Bay in Oahu that requires visitors to go through a short educational orientation and watch a video before entering the nature preserve. Hopefully, these ideas will continue to be developed and implemented to help address some of these issues.

While state politicians and decision-makers can’t change an entire economy overnight, visitors who take advantage of Hawaii’s top industry can change their behaviors and their attitudes so that it’s a little bit easier of a pill to swallow for the people whose culture and history has been stripped down and repackaged for maximum consumption by folks on holiday. Visitors should never expect that they have access to go where they want to go or that they can treat people like crap, no matter where or when they travel. Visitors should treat their destination with respect and reverence for the people and places that are their hosts. Just because you can get away with something, doesn’t mean you should still do it. Just because it’s legal or allowed, doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

So, if you hope to receive some of our aloha (which doesn’t come as part of the price of admission, no matter what those beckoning ads may say), it is imperative that you come here ready to share some aloha of your own.

Hawaii has a long way to go before it can even partially extract itself from suckling so strongly at the teat of tourism, but it has never been given a better time to start than now. One thing has been made clear: though many people are suffering at the loss of their jobs, those dolphins and whales that visitors come to visit certainly don’t miss them. Marine life is flourishing as residents and visitors can no longer snorkel, scuba dive, or play amongst the reefs, and that needs to be taken very seriously by all of us, visitors and residents alike.

So come back to Hawaii, eventually. You’ll need a vacation when this is over, and many of us want to welcome you. Just don’t be too surprised if our aloha continues to wear thin if some changes aren’t made, starting with you.


The Donald should stop unessential travel between States. Simple, contain the spread.
America has achieved through arrogance the highest death toll in world.
Donald believes in saving the economy and not people.
America will return him to the presidency for another 4 years.

whkraus May 1, 2020

I was transferred to Hawaii in 1978 and didn't think I'd last more than a year or two because of the lack of envirenmental care. You couldn't take a picture of a typical Hawaiian gem without garbage in the frame. A litter patrol was initiated and per a newpaper article had not written a citation after several months of it's initiation. When I reported a motorist dumping a whole ashtray out the window at a traffic signal (complete with license number) I was never contacted by anyone. Well, I got over that as the plusses outwayed the minuses by far. 
Nobody can deny that Hawaii's main income is generated by tourism with the good and the bad that brings. Lets face it, there isn't enough agricultural land (and interest) in making farming a major source of income. We have travelled all over this world and every, even marginally, nice spot wants to encourage tourism. We have to come to grips with the fact that those tourists aren't all desirables you can't just collect their money but don't accept the people that spend it. The current unique circumstance clearly shows where the money is and that will never change (hopefully).

zion808 May 1, 2020

"I don't like tourists or -my- economy relying on tourists" written by a tourist.  Since you came here as a visitor on your wanderlust only 3 years ago you obviously aren't aware that Hawaii used to have a large agricultural presence. The largest pineapple and sugar cane producing states but guess where it all went?  Tourists like you came here, stayed, and began to protest the impacts that agriculture had on the island.  Pineapple was taking up too much land, ruining the soil, etc - and sugar cane was casuing too much ash, too much fire, took up too much water and land, etc.  Even though these industries provided TONS of jobs for real local residents it was shunned and pushed away by people not directly benefitting from the industry, a large amount of them transplants like yourself.  Even when these crops were at their peak [note: sugar canes peak was some of the best agricultural progress in the nation - it was fully computerized, brought energy to the island, and processed 1000 tons of sugar cane a DAY], tourism was still the biggest part of the economy growing avacados will not offset that.  Article is written as if u are part of the history of tourism in Hawaii and trying to change it.  You lived here for THREE YEARS - you may be respectful of the culture and history but you are still a transplant with little experience of our history.

jbrown0902 May 1, 2020

I'm surprised at all the negative comments being made by people who appear to be offended by what the writer wrote. The writer is not happy with the disrespectful people who visit Hawaii, so why are people who I assume are not disrespectful taking offence to the article that is not directed to them? People who are too easily offended by what some random person writes should stay off the internet. 
As far as becoming less reliant on tourism goes, I think that is a great idea that should be seriously pursued. Relying too much on one particular source of income is always very risky. 


Lived in Hawaii for 12 years, left in 1980.  Hawaiians (using the term loosely to refer to all people who are residents) have not figured out how to detach from tourist dollars and really don't want to.  The 20% of economy that tourism contributes is a huge understatement.  Tourism drives so much indirect activity it is likely twice that amount.  But every resident that does not work directly for a hotel or airline (like this author) feels like they are above the rest and can argue for a "better Hawaii" by killing tourism.  If you think Hawaiians are poor now, see what life is like as they are hand picking fruits and vegtables in order to survive.