By Annie Daly
October 01, 2019

The Hawaiian Islands have always held a magical allure, drawing travelers in search of warm Pacific breezes and an escape from the 9-to-5. And these days, thanks to a slew of new hotel openings and flight options, travel to Hawaii is more popular than ever. While that’s generally good for the state’s economy, it also means that we, as conscious travelers, should be extra mindful of the effects of over tourism there. That includes making an effort to keep the land as pristine as possible and to better understand Hawaiian culture at large—a good thing for both visitors and locals alike.

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Fortunately, several hotels and other businesses in Hawaii have recently hired cultural practitioners (experts in their field) whose job is to educate visitors and staff members about doing just that. Here, a few of them share the local concepts and traditions they want you to know before your next trip.

1. Hawaii has been home to the Hawaiian people for over a thousand years.

Native Hawaiians have lived in the islands since the Polynesians sailed to Hawaii and settled there in the 5th century AD. While it sounds obvious to point that out, many cultural practitioners believe it’s still a necessary first step. “Hawaiians feel incredibly connected to our ancestors, and it’s important for visitors to keep that in mind,” explains Kahulu De Santos, cultural practitioner at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on Oahu. “When you enter someone’s home with that thought, you may enter in a different way than if you’re entering a place that’s set just for you.”

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2. Hawaiians are guided by a concept called “aloha aina,” which, translated to English, means “a love of the land.”

At its core is the belief that in Hawaiian culture and all aspects of nature — every tree, every plant, every animal — has a deity attached to it, explains Anela Evans, the cultural practitioner at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai. Ancient Hawaiians worshipped those deities every day, which in turn allowed them to live very sustainably for more than a thousand years in the most isolated landmass on Earth. Aloha aina, then, is a soulful love for the very land that made that possible.

3. Ho’okipa, or hospitality, is a bedrock of Hawaiian culture.

Ho’okipa, like many traditions in Hawaii, was born out of necessity. When ancient Hawaiians needed to make a journey across an island or to another island, it was the duty of the host to reach out to the visitor to help them find safe accommodation and sustenance. “They developed a system of trust and hospitality where the visitor would know by way of the shared culture that they should be respectful of the home that was opened up to them,” explains Manakō Tanaka, manager of the O'ahu Visitors Bureau and cultural lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Today, Hawaiians still expect visitors to adhere to the principles of ho’okipa. But thanks to social media, more visitors have been trespassing on forbidden lands—known as “kapu” grounds—to get the ‘gram. That’s considered disrespectful, especially because “kapu” grounds usually mark a sacred site. “To an outsider it might not look like anything—maybe it’s just a collection of rocks—but we ask that you leave the place as is, without moving any stones,” advises De Santos.

4. Lei are sacred—so treat them with respect.

That lei you get at check-in has more meaning than you think. In ancient culture, Hawaiian hula dancers made lei out of various plants and flowers to wear when they performed. Each plant had a deity attached to it, and the purpose of wearing a lei was to actually become those deities. “As a result, hula dancers were elevated to a higher power,” explains Evans.

Today, even though traditional hula dancers still carry that belief, lei have come to be known as more of a welcome gift in the tourism industry than a sacred gateway to the deities. But Hawaiians still encourage visitors to treasure lei as you would a gift, notes Tanaka. Her advice: If the lei is still good, take it home. If not, just leave it placed nicely on the table instead of thrown in the trash can.

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5. Whenever possible, try to say the Hawaiian name of a location, rather than the English version.

In 1896, an American law was passed that made it illegal to use or teach the Hawaiian language in public schools. That law stuck around for decades, and although there’s now a movement to revitalize the Hawaiian language, many places in Hawaii are still more commonly known by their English nicknames. For example, Palauea Beach in Maui is often referred to as White Rock.

The traditional Hawaiian names are sacred, though, because they often tell the story of that place. “And so, if you call a place by a name given to that place less than 50 years ago, it can be pretty offensive because you’re taking away all of that honor,” Evans explains. It’s similar to when Americans came to the U.S. and the immigration officers had to change their names because they couldn’t pronounce them.

6. Never turn your back on the ocean.

“Every Hawaiian knows that,” advises De Santos. But it’s worth repeating, especially in the wake of a few recent tourist deaths due to surprise waves. What most Hawaiians understand to their core is that the ocean — and nature in general—is a spiritual force, one that changes every day and always deserves respect. “Nature is very powerful, so as a visitor, let aloha be your guide. Aloha is always leading the way.”

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