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Cultural Guide to Visiting Hawaii: A History Recap + Dos & Donts for Visitors

Tourism in Hawaii is a sensitive topic with Hawaiian natives and some locals. Mostly because of the sheer number of people visiting Hawaii these days. 

While most Hawaiians welcome visitors with the warmest aloha, how YOU behave goes a long way towards a better dynamic. 

Cultural Guide to Visiting Hawaii (AKA Things You Need to Know)

I’ve put together a little cultural guide for visiting Hawaii that covers things like some historical context to Hawaii (so important! And it really explains most of the tension around tourism in Hawaii), plus what to do and what not to do in Hawaii to stay safe and respect the culture/land. 

Here’s the scoop…

A Quick Rundown on Hawaiian History

I think it’s important for every visitor to Hawaii to have a little history lesson for some social context. 

Yes, Hawaii is the 50th state in the Union, but there are many people who consider it an illegally occupied sovereign nation. Whether or not you agree with that is beside the point, but understanding the perspective and respecting the people of Hawaii will go a long way towards enriching your travel experience. 

Here’s a quick rundown: The Kingdom of Hawaii was a thriving monarchy under the rule of King Kamehameha I (who united the islands in 1810). The first missionaries showed up in 1820. The first sugar cane plantation started in 1835, and the Hawaiian Islands developed a reputation as prime agricultural land (this is when American influence in Hawaiian government begins–the major business owners in Hawaii were American). By the 1850s, the plantations were booming and they needed more labor. Immigrants were recruited from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Portugal. 

In 1882, the Iolani Palace was completed and it had electricity before the White House and Buckingham Palace. In 1887, the US began leasing Pearl Harbor. 

Later in 1887, a group of largely non-Hawaiians drafted a new constitution (signed under threat of force) that stripped the King of power (later called the Bayonet Constitution). In 1891, Lili’uokalani (the last Queen of Hawaii) ascended to the throne and in 1893 she attempted to pass a new constitution that would give power back to the people of Hawaii. 

It gets really complicated from here, but basically a coup to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii followed immediately, designed largely by American businessmen and backed by the US military (a show of force mostly). To protect American property and interests in the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Republic of Hawaii was formed as the US tried to move towards annexation (the American businessmen forming the Republic of Hawaii kept the US from being technically directly involved). 

Interestingly, the treaty to annex Hawaii never passed the Senate and it gets a little murky as to how President McKinley eventually signed the Newlands Resolution in 1898 which created the Territory of Hawaii. Sanford B. Dole (yep, the pineapple guy : ) was appointed as the first Territorial Governor which tells a lot of the story, and Queen Lili’uokalani eventually died under house arrest. 

The sugarcane plantations kept booming. Business was good. Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state in 1959. And now tourism is the most dominant economic driver in the islands. 

While many native Hawaiians feel that their land (and to some extent their culture) has been stolen from them, they’re largely VERY welcoming to visitors. But that’s what you are…a visitor in someone’s home. If you get that and behave accordingly, Hawaii is the greatest place on earth you’ll ever visit. Yes, it’s very beautiful, but there are a lot of beautiful places. The people and the way that they share their culture is what makes it special.

Hawaii Dos & Donts

Here are some common courtesy rules for visitors to Hawaii…

Don’t act like an entitled tourist. 

It’s the worst. Just because you’re spending a lot of money to be there doesn’t mean you can 1) act like a jerk, 2) be demanding, 3) do whatever you want. 

Hopefully this sounds super dramatic to you and something that should go without saying WHEREVER YOU ARE IN THE WORLD, but hey, some people are crazy and it has to be said. 

Need an example? Have you seen the rainbow eucalyptus trees? They’re crazy cool. A eucalyptus tree found in Hawaii whose bark is literally like a rainbow. You know what people do? THEY CARVE THEIR NAMES INTO IT. Why on earth would you do that??? Just stop. 

Don’t trespass on private property. 

Again, seems like a no brainer right? You’d be surprised. Just because you read about a hike to a waterfall in a guidebook doesn’t mean you can go there if it’s on private property. This is particularly a big problem along the Road to Hana on Maui. 

If you have to climb around a gate or ignore posted signs, don’t do it. Also, it’s generally appreciated if you don’t geotag locations on social media of sites that are considered secluded or special to locals (even if it’s legal to access). 

Don’t touch the sea turtles or the monk seals. 

Both Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals are protected species meaning IT’S A FEDERAL OFFENSE TO TOUCH THEM. You’re required to keep a MINIMUM 10 foot perimeter from these creatures whether they’re in the water or on the land (it’s not uncommon to see them sunning themselves on beaches). 

And if you’re in the water you should stay even further away because you have less control. 

Some beaches (especially Ho’okipa on Maui) set up fairly large perimeters around turtles and monk seals (more common for the monk seals because they’re more rare) so be sure to respect the perimeter and don’t be one of those people that ducks under a rope because you’re “technically allowed to be 10 feet away.” 

The good news is that the numbers for these species (especially the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles) is GROWING because of their protected status. 

Tread lightly on the environment. 

The staggering number of visitors that Hawaii receives annually means it can be a real strain on the islands. But there’s a lot you can do to make a difference. Pick up your trash. Heck, pick up other people’s trash. 

Use Reef Safe Sunscreen. 

Tons (literal TONS) of sunscreen ends up washed around Hawaii’s beautiful coral reefs each year and it’s increasingly being understood how harmful it is (how much conditions improved during the COVID shutdowns was pretty astounding). 

Hawaii recently passed a bill making it illegal to sell sunscreen with two ingredients found to be most harmful to reefs and it makes a HUGE difference when people wear reef safe (or at least reef friendly) sunscreen when in the ocean. 

Don’t drive like a jerk. 

Or just be clueless in general. Remember, while you’re on vacation, the locals are not. Be aware of your surroundings and try not to hold anybody up. When in doubt, just pull over and let them go around. 

Don’t stop your car in the middle of traffic because you want to take a picture of a rainbow or a mongoose or a chicken or a waterfall (every other visitor there also wants to do the same and it can create a real traffic jam which isn’t something you want to deal with every day when you’re trying to get to work). 

Don’t park illegally by the side of the road (super important along the road to Hana on Maui). Don’t park in front of business and then leave your car there while you’re at the beach. 

Know the one lane bridge rule: there are places (mostly along the road to Hana on Maui or the north shore of Kauai) where there are one-lane bridges. The local custom is to let 5-7 cars go at a time. If your side is going, count how many cars go ahead of you to determine whether you should go with this batch or stop and let the other side go first. 

These are all local courtesies. Locals aren’t grumpy that tourists are there, but they do get frustrated when they’re trying to go about their daily business and they can’t. Imagine dropping your kids off for school, going to the grocery store, doing WHATEVER and having to battle hundreds of people and cars who are kind of lollygagging around. 

Here’s the deal: You probably will get in somebody’s way at some point, but your attitude goes a long way. Be aware, apologize, smile, let them go ahead. Just be nice. 

Practice ocean safety. And safety in general. 

The ocean is no joke. Quite a few people drown every year and a lot of it is avoidable. Never get in the water without watching it for a while. Never turn your back to the ocean. Do you really need to be snorkeling on your own 100 yards from shore? 

Stay away from blowholes. Stay away from rocky areas when there’s high surf (there’s always tempting natural pools to swim in but it’s so risky). Don’t swim at beaches where there are warnings posted. Stay on trails. 

It’s not like locals don’t want you to have any fun. But besides these things being in the best interest of YOU, here’s something to think about: for every first responder/coast guard/helicopter that’s dispatched to help someone who got themselves into a not so smart situation, those are resources that aren’t available to local families when they need help. And on an island with finite resources, that can be a big deal. 

How to Pronounce Hawaiian Words

Nobody is going to be mad at you for not speaking Hawaiian (not many people do anymore), but it goes a long way to make an effort. “Aloha” means hello, goodbye, and love. “Mahalo” means thank you. “Keiki” means kid (you’ll see this a lot…kids menus, etc.). Pronouncing Hawaiian words can be TRICKY. Here are a couple of tips: 

The vowels are pronounced like Spanish:

“A” = ah

“E” = eh

“I” = ee

“O” = oh

“U” = oo

99% of the time you pronounce every letter distinctly.

The exceptions are: “ao” is pronounced “ow”, “ai” is pronounced “eye”, “au” is pronounced “ow”

Something else useful to know: “Hawaiian” refers to anyone born with Hawaiian blood. Like, ancient Hawaiian blood, not just born in the state. “Local” refers to anyone born in Hawaii (except usually white people but sooooometimes them too). “Haole” refers to white people and tourists in general. It can be derogatory, but not necessarily. The term “kama’aina” is also thrown around which refers to anyone from or living in Hawaii regardless of their ethnicity.

P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!

Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!