Defining the Balancing Act: Reconciling Tourism and Culture on Kauai

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

Kauai is the oldest inhabited island of the Hawaiian archipelago. First populated in 200 AD by the Marquesans, waves of travelers have non-stop come to settle on the island. Though certain waves, like the early Polynesian settlers, created systems of shared abundance and mutual respect for both human and natural resources based on the “Ahupua’a” (watershed), others waves, like the more recent wave of Silicon Valley billionaire base on private land ownership, are degrading both the cultural and natural heritage of Kauai.

As Twain highlighted, travel in essence is a tool to open our eyes, to explore and understand that and those to which we are not akin. Through these experiences, the traveler learns to respect diversity. Yet, the exponential growth of the tourism industry in Kauai over the last sixty years is eroding that same essence it seeks on the island: the peaceful greenery of the “garden isle”.

Since the fall of the plantation era in the 1950s, tourism has rapidly become the island’s leading industry, currently generating a third of the employment. Real estate development for tourism has also resulted in increased land prices, clogged roads, stressed and contaminated water systems, and pushed the native Kauaians off their land.

Kauai now finds itself on the verge of a tipping point: either it finds a balance for tourism and cultural heritage that inspires and teaches the traveler, or it tips into a system of replication, offering the same vegetative comfortable corner of the earth the “traveler” is accustomed to.

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