Two SMC students from Hawaii share their perspectives on how a spike in tourism and the persistence of COVID-19 have impacted their home.
By Brent Dondalski
Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging on almost entirely among the unvaccinated, according to the CDC, with 100,000+ new cases each day in the U.S. Few places have suffered as much as Hawaii, with ICU beds reaching past capacity just this month, according to the Star Advisor. With the country beginning to reopen, especially for the vaccinated, more and more people are taking advantage of this newfound freedom after a long year of social distancing and business closures.
With Hawaii being such a sought-after vacation spot, local Hawaiians are now faced with a growing tourism wave paired with the ongoing pandemic. Unfortunately, people native to the islands have to deal with the consequences of tourism and irresponsible actions that lead to the spread of COVID-19. Hawaii’s location makes it far too vulnerable to COVID-19 and other issues that local Hawaiians will ultimately feel the weight of.
These are things potential visitors and those considering Hawaii as a vacation destination should consider and reflect on. This past week I spoke with two Saint Mary’s students who are both from Hawaii. Taylor Swoish, a senior from Kailua on the island of Oahu, and Chandler Cowell, a senior from Maui on the slopes of Haleakala each shared their thoughts on Hawaii and the pandemic.
Dondalski: From your perspective, what is going on in Hawaii right now in regards to the pandemic?
Taylor Swoish: From my perspective, we just had a really high spike and COVID-19 due to the number of tourists that have come in. My mom works in the COVID-19 unit, she helps test people… I think we've had like, 1000 cases in one day, which sounds like a little bit, but just for Hawaii, it's a lot. There's a lot of people coming in and we all know [the COVID-19 spike] is because of travel because we're so isolated. That's the only way they are getting there.
Chandler Cowell: Right now, and for the past, almost two years since the global pandemic hit, it's been kind of a crazy experience, to say the least. I was fortunate that I got to go home when COVID-19 first hit and be there for two months. Basically, everything shut down. And when I mean everything, I mean every single thing: shops, restaurants, places to walk, nobody was even going to the beach.
That was crazy because the beach and ocean are such a big part of Hawaii and a part of what makes us us. And even now, although things are opening up more, there's actually still this crazy energy. It's hard to actually put into words. I know that we have an exponentially higher amount of tourists here than we have ever before.
Dondalski: A lot of local people are saying don’t come, yet there’s a lot of tourists are going anyways. Why is there this disconnect between local Hawaiians and tourists?
Swoish: I think it's because of these stereotypes that Hawaii has on the US mainland. There's a lot of preconceived notions of what Hawaii is. So I feel like in a lot of people's minds they forget that people live there all the time. And it's just a lot of what I see with kids at our school: a lot of people just have what they've seen on vacation and what they've seen on TV. So there's a disconnect of people thinking it's just an island paradise, and then forgetting that it is people's homes.
Cowell: What I've talked to many family and friends and seen on Facebook and other social media is that Hawaii is actually a very small collection of islands, and Maui is even smaller. We don't have as many people as, say, Oahu. Having more people there means less time for locals to be out and do their thing. On top of that, having the pandemic where there's a risk of exposure to COVID-19.
We understand that tourism is an essential part of the Hawaiian economy because it's been shaped that way. But at the same time, it's hard to really want to have people there when they aren't necessarily—and it's not everyone, I'm not going to generalize—but there are people who go there and don't wear their masks or they don't follow the COVID-19 safety protocols, or they create a ruckus. And on top of that, there's already a really hard understanding between locals and tourists, and the essence of when people come there, they treat Hawaii like Disneyland. They don't really understand that people have livelihoods and families and a connection to the land. Hawaii is a very collected collectivistic culture and it happens to be that sometimes when tourists come, they're just so consumed by being on vacation that they forget to realize that people live there and have lives there.
Dondalski: How have tourists coming to Hawaii personally affected you?
Swoish: I've got to see the difference between when the pandemic first happened and when no one was there, and this summer when it was just kind of insane. It's annoying because people just come and then they leave and then we have to deal with the problem. So it sucked because my friends were being safe, but because of all these people now, there are more restrictions. So when people come, we have to deal with everything else when they go. That has just been really frustrating.
Cowell: It's hard. I have to say, although it was shut down, and I know our economy took a hit, it was incredible to see the island and its natural beauty without as many people and without as many cars on the road. I was scared for COVID-19, but I was simply grateful that I got to experience the island as it should be treasured. The island had a chance to breathe.
And now, being back at St. Mary's, it's harder to go home. It's already expensive to go home as before COVID-19, but, even now the ticket numbers are extremely high. I understand that people want to go and get to take a break from this crazy history that's been happening, but they should also realize that when they take up all those flights, they are taking away from other people who want to go home and just be with their families. I'm not going there to stay at the Grand Wailea and go to the pool and all these fancy restaurants, I'm going to go hang out with my cat, to go to my favorite hikes and stuff.
Dondalski: If you could say anything to people planning on visiting Hawaii what would it be?
Swoish: Just be respectful. And think about how your actions do affect others. I keep saying about the trip that's going in for Jan Term. I keep saying it's just really big colonizer energy because it really shows people's privilege of being able to go and not really care [about their impact]. You wouldn't want someone to go into your house, or your space and spread COVID-19. Maybe don't do it to a super isolated island with only a couple hospitals.
Cowell: Think of why you want to go and think of what's the real reason you want to go there. And if you do end up going, I mean, I have no control over that. But before you go, do your research and understand what it's like to actually be in Hawaii. It's not just a place you can go visit and forget all your worries. People live there. Families live there. There's a whole culture there. There's a history there. And I'm not saying you have to know every single detail about Hawaii—if you do that'd be great—but understand what you're going into and understand that there's a way of life there that is so different from people here on the mainland. Take that step back and don't think only of yourself. Think of all the people who are there too.
Vacationing in Hawaii right now puts the state in a very vulnerable position. COVID-19 is still spreading, and ultimately local Hawaiians will have to deal with growing hospitalizations and rising cases. Traveling to and from Hawaii is already expensive, but this spike in tourism is making it even more difficult for many Hawaiian students to travel back home. People considering a visit to Hawaii should really consider whether this is the best time for a vacation there and what they can do to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Melanie Moyer '22,