The Road to Hana Really Got My Wheels Spinning

Aloha from Kona, the land of lava, kava, and coffee. For those of you who have never had kava, a “sedative” drink made from the roots of the plant by the same name, stay tuned. I’m going to be doing my fair share of sampling tonight in anticipation of writing a rundown of it next week.

To be honest, because I’m on the road drinking so much working so hard, I had no idea about the news coming out of Oahu regarding the town that is turning its back on tourism until I read it yesterday. But I wasn’t surprised. Tourism has always been a hot button issue in Hawaii, a love/hate relationship to the max. It brings money to the island, but along with that money comes consequences.

Last night in Hana, I was walking through a restaurant after dinner and saw my waiter from the previous evening sitting at a table. He invited me over to have a glass of wine. He was a true, native Hawaiian, a man in his early-to-mid-twenties, born and bred in Hana, one of the most isolated towns in the entire United States. It wasn’t long before the wine led us to the nitty-gritty.

Scenery along the Road to Hana. Photo by Wake and Wander.
Scenery along the Road to Hana. Photo by Wake and Wander.

In terms of the reasons for why I travel so much, it always comes around to the issue of an interest in the way others choose, or don’t choose, to live their lives. I like seeing the way the lifestyle in Milwaukee is different from the lifestyle on Trinidad. And I like to write about those differences and encourage others to go and see for themselves. But tourism has a tipping point. If enough people come to see and play along with the lifestyle, it will gradually, and eventually, erode.

Which is why we’re always looking for the next “undiscovered” land: So we can discover it and enjoy its innocence as we would a newborn’s. But ultimately, at least as far as we have seen thus far in history, we end up devouring it until it looks completely different than the place we fell in love with. I’m not preaching or complaining. Rather, that’s just an honest evaluation of the tourism industry today, and I can cite plenty of examples of where this has happened, be it the Bahamas or Cabo or Prague.

As I have advanced in my travel writing career, I have often wondered what implications my actions have on a destination. Most times, I’m doing good stuff, giving people the directions to happiness in places that can handle the load. New York City, for example, is not going to crumble if a few thousand people read my article and decide to go to the Big Apple next year.

But Hana? A town of just over a thousand in the middle of the Maui rainforest? I will never forget what this young man said to me as we sat at the table, drinking white wine and feeling the air come down from the spinning fan. When I asked him how he felt sharing his land with tourists, he said it was a fine situation so long as it didn’t get out of hand. I asked him what that meant. He said he didn’t want to see it end up like the rest of the island. I again asked him what that meant.

He said, “Well, when people from Kahului come up here to fish or hunt, we tell them to go home. We tell them, ‘That was your land to protect and you let it go to concrete. Go live with that.’”

I sat, stunned. It was, without question, one of the most powerful and insightful things I’ve heard in my days on the road, something that really got the wheels spinning for me. It is this conundrum, the lure of the undiscovered against the implications of discovering it, that makes Hana, the whole east side of Maui, and numerous other areas around the world such special places to visit. It is also, unfortunately, what makes the paradoxical cycle continue to dig itself deeper.

To us, this tourism thing is a game. Go here. Stay there. Drink this. Eat that. The inhabitants of our destinations, be it Mexico, Hawaii, or the Caribbean, see things a little differently. Let’s not lose sight of that as we blaze our trail of exploration.

With that in mind, I’ll attempt to walk the line next week with some guidance for your next trek to Hana.


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