How Molokai is Different From the Other Hawaiian Islands

Halawa Valley on Molokai, Hawaii. 

This article originally appeared in Forbes. 

Molokai is the least-visited of the major Hawaiian Islands, and it doesn’t exactly offer what we’ve come to expect from a tourism destination here in 2019.

There is only one true hotel on the island (the Hotel Molokai), for example, and those expecting a plethora of organized tours and a variety of well-established attractions will quickly find themselves mistaken.

Indeed, when it comes to its relationship to tourism, Molokai is not only much different from the other Hawaiian Islands, it is much different from most of the world’s destinations – which, in turn, means it’s not for everyone.

Is it for you? Here’s what you need to understand about visiting Molokai.

Tourism and population growth is controversial on the island, but it’s nothing personal.

Destinations all over the world are beginning to have problems with tourism. Many of the most vocal examples we see involve disgruntled residents who have grown tired of the grasp visiting populations have over their local communities, both financially and practically. Overcrowding. Traffic. Neighborhoods watered-down by vacation rentals. Increased cost of living. Inauthenticity.

Residents of Molokai are looking to ensure they never become one of the above examples – they’d rather prevent it from the start. As a whole, the island is known for resisting large-scale tourism investment, including cruise ships and chain hotels. Most of this happens as a result of grassroots involvement and protest, ensuring that nothing is done by elected leaders, both local and at the state level, that the community at-large does not agree with. This message is echoed everywhere, typically via signs in the front yards along the main road (“No Cruise Ship” is a common one).

While at first one might interpret this as an attack on individual tourists, it is absolutely not personal – it’s what it takes to ensure proper protection. Molokai has watched as other islands have given up their identities, in whole or in part, to tourism, and has for centuries been exploited by outsiders. What happens to the other islands is not their kuleana, or responsibility, but Molokai residents are determined to shape their own reality here at home.

You need to be more than a tourist.

It might seem like a startling concept in today’s world, where visitors descend on a destination and consume it as if it’s their own (which, in fairness, is often encouraged by the destination itself), but Molokai expects – and demands – that tourism be of mutual benefit, not just financially for some people, but entirely for all.

What Molokai does not want are visitors that come to the island to consume, or “vacation,” as it is often called. They don’t want anything that will deplete, or harm, their resources. They don’t want massive cruise ships (only one, small cruise ship called UnCruise is currently permitted to visit Molokai). They don’t want mega-resorts.

What they want are people who plan to participate as a part of their visit – they want travelers, not tourists and vacationers.

According to Julie Bicoy, Manager of the Destination Molokai Visitors Bureau, the island is most interested in “educational studies” – people who want to come to learn and volunteer as part of their visit, who like the idea of pitching in on a farm or non-profit project, of interacting and connecting with a local family. Balanced visitors, who see this type of immersion as mutually beneficial, are what the island desires.

They also want visitors who respect their land and behave accordingly, who ask permission and tread lightly.

What does that mean in practice? Hawaiians operate on what’s called “protocol,” a system of respect that is deeply rooted in culture. It revolves around the idea that when you are a guest somewhere, you must seek approval and permission before carrying on as you wish.

Think about it this way: If you were going over to someone’s house for a visit, there would be certain expectations – and requirements – about your behavior, right? Well, consider the island of Molokai one big house, and that’s how you need to think about your presence. You need to ask permission before you do things (Hey Auntie, is it okay if I take a picture of your storefront? Hey Uncle, is it okay if I park in front of your house? Does your family mind if we fish alongside you?). You need to always keep in mind that you are a visitor, and your agenda does not supersede the lives of the locals around you.

Many times, this is hard to remember in the churning business of tourism we find in many popular destinations. A visit to Molokai will not let you forget.

A map won’t help you find the island’s special places.

Given the discussion above, it probably won’t come as a surprise to know that the island is not well marked for visitors. Even some of its most popular “attractions,” like the Plumeria Farm, is without a sign and easily passed by without second thought. Information about its major historical site, the Kalaupapa Pennisula, is often less than clear (the trail down is now indefinitely closed due to a landslide). Maps that are handed out show the bare minimum, as if the island was nothing more than Kalaupapa and Halawa, as if it didn’t have much more to offer.

This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. So why the secrecy? Chalk it up to some combination of indifference and principle.

“I’m always cautious about what information I give and what places I take [visitors],” Cultural Advisor Kainoa Horcajo explained about Hawaii’s protective shell. “For far too long those special places here—and everywhere else in the world—have been prostituted and advertised in such a way that brings about their demise.”

“Prove” Yourself, and Doors Will Open

I put the word prove in quotes above to give myself some grace about its meaning, but that said, it’s not too far off from reality.

You can get to know some places around the world without penetrating the lives of the local people. Disney World, for example, or any other curated experience, requires no interaction with residents to experience the place fully. Even “real places” sometimes don’t require you to dig into reality – it’s easy to visit Oahu, for example, and find your way using all the available resources we’ve come to rely on in tourism, including well-established guide books and well-marketed experiences advertised for sale.

But on Molokai, the only way to the heart of the island is through the hearts of the people. Hawaiians are among the most warm and welcoming people on the planet – you just need to show them you are, too. Show up armed with a big camera and social media flashing on your iPhone, with the intention of showcasing all their favorite spots to the world, and you can expect to be directed back to the airport.

Many farms, such as the Halawa Tropical Flower Farm, offer free lodging for volunteers who join them for a half day of help at the nursery. Molokai Bike Shop Owner Phillip Kikukawa typically goes on a ride every evening – and he’ll probably invite you to come along if you chat him up. The local canoe club at the boat harbor takes out first timers every Thursday morning, but you would only know that if someone tells you. It is through this process, by truly integrating yourself and getting to know people, that Molokai will open its doors.

It might seem curious, again, because of what we’ve been trained to think about tourism, that a destination would require so much “work.” But Molokai is looking to do something that few others have had the courage to do: Require visitors to do more than consume. If you want to come visit, come visit – learn about the land, get to know a family, fill your schedule with the connections you make, the invitations you receive. If you want to sit on a beach all day, try out another island.

Read the rest of this story on Forbes.


One comment

  1. Just wanted to say that this article is spot on. I’ve been to Molokai twice, and the second time I experienced much of what was written in this article. I connected with a few locals and they told me of secret spots to visit, untouched by tourists, and even names of other locals that would take me to those spots. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure they were sizing me up before opening up, and once the deemed me “worthy,” they opened up to me.

    So when you write, “the only way to the heart of the island is through the hearts of the people. Hawaiians are among the most warm and welcoming people on the planet – you just need to show them you are, too,” I completely agree!

    Great job on the article, I enjoyed it very much.

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