Hawai'i: People and Sustainability

The human environment of Hawai‘i is a complex, multiracial landscape. From the arrivals of the first Polynesian voyagers to the modern immigrants of today, Hawai‘i has become a melting pot in the Pacific. Native Hawaiians are less than 10% of the population, yet the tourism industry that drives the state depends heavily on marketing Polynesian culture. The Native Hawaiian population was decimated by disease in the nineteenth century and missionaries, entrepreneurs, laborers, and other immigrants from all over the world have reshaped the ethnic makeup of the islands.[1]

Yet Hawai‘i remains a distinct and unique location. Many residents identify more with Hawai‘i than their genetic roots. As Alana Bryant, fellow SPICE student, explains, “My family migrated to Hawai‘i from all over the world during the plantation days. Ethnically I am Greek, Japanese, Portuguese, Irish, Scottish, English, German, Swedish, and Cherokee--- but before all of this, I am Hawaiian. I identify much more with being Hawaiian than being an American, and this holds true for many people in Hawai‘i.”

The state of Hawai‘i has a population of 1,295,178 and has experienced some growth (6.9%) in population over the last decade. Most of that population is concentrated on the island of O‘ahu, which contains the largest city, Honolulu.[2] Honolulu County includes all of the island of O‘ahu and has a population of 907,574, 70% of the state’s total population. The majority of residents are Asian (43.9%); whites represent 26.6% of the population, and Native Hawaiians just 8.5%.[3]

Honolulu County stands in stark contrast to the other islands of the archipelago, with a much larger, more urban population. The population is dense around Honolulu (the state’s only legally incorporated city), and the beach is crowded with resorts.[4] By comparison, Hawai‘i County, which includes the island of Hawai‘i or the “Big Island,” has a population of 177,835, which is less than 14% of the entire population of the state on the largest land mass. The landscape feels undeveloped and wild, with a population density of just 36.9 people per square mile, in contrast to O‘ahu, which has 1,460 people per square mile. The majority of residents are white (38.3%), but other ethnic groups include Asians (23.5%) and biracial (25.0%). Native Hawaiians comprise 11.5% of the total population, which is greater than the state average of 9.2%.[5]

Hawaiians identify themselves by where they are from, the island, the valley or neighborhood, even the school they attended. For our shipmate Alana, she is from Manoa Valley, she went to Punahou school and she is hapa-haloe (generally mixed - part Caucasian, part Asian). “This is how people from Hawai‘i relate to each other, and it is the only identity I knew before I went to the mainland for college.”

Though the Native Hawaiian population is small, their sense of identity is strong and there has been a cultural resurgence in the last few decades. This resurgence is evident as Hawaiian voyaging canoes, notably the Hokule‘a, have navigated all over the Polynesian triangle; more students are learning the Hawaiian language; and Native Hawaiians are staging a vocal, though small, independence movement.

In 1893, the American military unlawfully participated in an overthrow of the Hawaiian government, setting the stage for annexation. Native Hawaiians never forgot and still push for sovereignty and independence from the United States. They still recognize their Princess, the royal heiress, descended from generations of leaders. They were finally somewhat vindicated in 1993 when the United States officially apologized in Public Law 103-150.[6] Whether or not any real reparations will be made remains to be seen.

Hawai‘i became a state in 1959 after almost 60 years of territorial status.[7] Therefore, the federal political system will be familiar to American readers. Hawai‘i’s senators are Daniel Akaka (D) and Daniel Inouye (D.) Both senators are members of the Committee on Indian Affairs, showing the state’s interest in its native population.[8],[9] Hawai‘i has two representatives in the House of Representatives, Colleen Hanabusa (D) and Mazie Hirono (D).  The governor and lieutenant governor are elected together to a four-year term, with a two-term limit. The state’s bicameral legislature includes twenty-five senators and fifty-one representatives. Honolulu is the state capital.[10]

Hawai‘i has only two levels of government, state and county, and does not have municipal governments.  Peter Carlisle is the mayor of the city and county of Honolulu. During a meeting with SPICE program students, he discussed his responsibility for a workforce of 10,000 people with a budget of $1.9 billion.[11] Hawai‘i is struggling economically. For the past year and a half, city and county workers have been put on furlough two days a month.[12]

Tourism is the driving force of the Hawaiian economy.  In 2010, 7,084,525 people visited the state of Hawai‘i.[13] Carlisle says tourism has been a consistent industry for years and he thinks it will remain so.  In the third quarter of 2010, the tourism sector of Hawai‘i increased significantly. Visitors increased the length of their stay along with the amount of money spent there.[14] For the year 2008, it is estimated that Hawai‘i’s tourism sector contributed about six billion dollars of revenue to the Hawaiian economy. 3,593,569 visitors came to the island of O‘ahu between January and October in the year 2010.[15] On the big island of Hawai‘i, during the same period, 1,074,158 visitors came to the island.[16]

Hawai‘i’s image as a tourist destination has been promoted since 1903, when the Hawaiian Promotion Committee was formed. That organization has evolved into today’s Hawai‘i Visitor Bureau.[17]University of Hawai‘i professor J.D. Goss writes that the early advertisements were aimed at the “salt of the earth,” who would “be spotted in Hawai‘i wearing black knee socks and sandals...or perhaps matching Hawaiian outfits.”[18] Since the mid-1980s, the ads have targeted a more discerning clientele, looking for relaxation and luxury, and willing to spend more money.[19]

Advertisements suggest the visitors will have their own unique experience in Hawai‘i. Yet today, most tourists descend on Honolulu and find a bustling metropolis with a towering cityscape and crowded beaches, the adjacent resorts basically butting into the water and each other. Additionally, the ads promise authentic Hawaiian culture, despite a small native population whose culture has continued to change in the centuries since contact. “It seems that cultural development has been arrested, preserved and museumized for tourist consumption,”[20]Goss explains. Kamaki Worthington, a captain with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, shared this sentiment. Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, he told SPICE students, it was Hawaiians “practicing culture with some tourists watching. Now, it’s a staged culture.”[21]

The lack of economic diversity in Hawai‘i creates a difficult and complex situation. The major emphases of the Hawaiian economy are focused on its role as a tourist destination and a Pacific port.  Visiting O‘ahu, it is very obvious that tourism and industry run the economy. The skyscrapers of Waikiki are the first thing one sees lining the beach, filled with imported sand.[22]The port district constantly has numerous barges and container ships waiting to come into dock.  As these businesses take over the shrinking natural environment and land is developed, the island moves further and further from sustainability. With less land available for agriculture and a growing population, O‘ahu has been pushed past the limit where the island could be self-sufficient. This is detrimental not only to the natural environment of the island, but also for the people, as the cost of living increases with a growing dependence on foreign goods and food. Recently a few initiatives have begun to emerge in the sectors of technology, biotechnology, and ecotourism. These new economic interests may help move the state away from further development in traditional tourism, and toward economic opportunities that will diversify the economy. Being an island chain, Hawai‘i is very isolated and its port is integral to the state's survival and ability to thrive. Hawai‘i has a productive port, located on O‘ahu. In 2009, the port of Hawai‘i imported 3.2 billion dollars and exported 5.8 billion dollars worth of goods.[23]

The economy of Hawai‘i has small agriculture, natural resources, and technology sectors. These sectors are all significant in helping to diversify Hawai‘i’s economy, however the revenue these sectors produce do not compare to tourism or import/export sectors. In 2008, the agricultural sector contributed 422 million dollars, the natural resource sector contributed 22 million, and the technology sector contributed 4 billion dollars.[24] These sectors will become extremely important if the tourism sector were to collapse. However, the agricultural sector does not seem to have a bright future as the lots designated for growing become developed. When talking about a new mass transit system that is currently in development, Patricia Teruya, Special Events Coordinator at the mayor’s office, described the land that was to be used in this project as agricultural lots.[25]

Agriculture and fishing make up about 0.6% of Hawai‘i’s economy and neither has a large economic impact.[26] Historically, there was a large group of growers who flocked to Hawai‘i to grow crops such as sugar cane and pineapples. The sugar plantations exploited the environment not only by depleting the soil of nutrients but also by damaging large tracts of land with infrastructure to support the growers. However, large-scale agriculture has greatly diminished. In the future, cultivating crops in a controlled way may prove to be economically and environmentally advantageous. A shift from tourism toward agriculture may provide some economic diversity and stability. Also a shift like this will help the island move away from imports and toward more self-sustainability.

Hawai‘i has made a market of commoditizing a marginalized indigenous community. This begs one to ask whether or not Hawai‘i could go in a new direction, focusing on long-term sustainability of the island’s economy, culture, and environment.

Liann Correia, Washington and Jefferson College
Kelsey Lane, Brown University



[1]  Sai, David. "The American Occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom: Beginning the Transition from Occupied to Restored State." Diss. University of Hawai‘i, 2008. Hawaiian Kingdom. 20 Dec. 2008. Web. 11 Jan. 2011. 197.

[2]  "Hawai‘i County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau." U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts. 16 Aug. 2010. Web. 11 Jan. 2011. <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/15/15001.html>.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  "Hawai‘i." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  “The Apology Resolution.” Public Law 103-150.23 Nov. 1993.S.J. Res. 19. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://alohaquest.com/archive/archive.htm>

[7]  Sai, 165.

[8]  “Committees.” Dan Inouye, United States Senator for Hawai‘i. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://inouye.senate.gov/Committees.cfm>.

[9]  “Committee Assignments and Caucus Relationships.” Daniel Akaka, United States Senator for Hawai‘i. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://akaka.senate.gov/committees.cfm>

[10]  “Member Information.” Office of the Clerk: U.S. House of Representatives. Web. 28 Jan. 2011. <http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/index.html>

[11]  "Hawai‘i." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.

[12]  Carlisle, Peter. Personal Interview. 22 March, 2011. Honolulu Hale.

[13]  Carlisle, Peter. Personal Interview. 22 March, 2011. Honolulu Hale.

[14]  Business Action Center. “The State of Hawai‘i Data Book: Hawai‘i Tourism Authority Dec. 2010 Table.” State of Hawai‘i Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, 6 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://Hawai‘i.gove/dcca/bac/import_export>

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  Business Action Center. “The State of Hawai‘i Data Book: Table 7.03.” State of Hawai‘i Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, 6 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://hawaii.gov/dcca/bac/import_export>

[17]  Ibid.

[18]  Goss, J.D. “Placing the market and marketing place: tourist advantage of the Hawaiian Islands, 1972-92.” Environment and Planning. D, Society & Space. 11.6 (1993): 663-688, 666.

[19]  Ibid, 666.

[20]  Ibid, 666.

[21]  Ibid, 680.

[22]  Worthington, Kamaki. Captain Polynesian Voyaging Society. Personal Interview. 22 March, 2011. Marine Education Center.

[23]  Ibid.

[24]  Ibid.

[25]  “Bureau of Economic Analysis: Regional Economic Accounts- Gross Domestic Product by State.” United States Department of Commerce, 24 Nov. 2010. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.<http://www.bea.gov/regional/gsp>

[26]  Teruya, Patricia. Special Events Coordinator, City and County of Honolulu, Personal Interview. 22 March 2011. Honolulu Hale.

[27]   Ibid.