For tourists, the perpetually warm, impossibly lush state of Hawaii offers all the ingredients of a dream vacation. The islands' trademark "aloha spirit" — their welcoming, laid-back, earthy vibe — is probably as much of a draw as Honolulu's famed Waikiki Breach. Furthermore, Hawaii is arguably the most exotic place U.S. citizens can visit without a passport. Even with a slowing economy, 6.5 million visitors are expected to come to Hawaii this year.
The travel industry brings money and jobs into what would otherwise be an isolated, slow-moving economy. In many areas of the state, tourism is the economy. But there's a growing feeling among locals and old Hawaii hands, as well as tuned-in tourists, that the traditional Hawaiian atmosphere is being taken over by mass-produced package tours, impatient vacationers and concrete resort hotels.
While the view from heavily populated Waikiki Beach or the buffet line at a resort's sanitized luau will support the "death of aloha" theory, there are plenty of other trends that show Hawaii's culture and its natural landscapes are far from forgotten.
Honolulu, the state capitol, is consistently recognized as a national leader in clean air. Ambitious transportation projects, an enviable public transit system, and the widespread implementation of electric-car charging stations prove Hawaii is at the forefront of the green movement. And the resorts and tourist havens fueling negative talk about Hawaii's future? They're only small portions of the islands' geography.
The state is in the planning stages of a strategy that will see it reduce the need for fossil fuels by 70 percent over the next 20 years. One of the first parts of the plan involves installing charging stations for electric cars around the islands; between 50,000 and 100,000 charging stations will be installed in Hawaii over the next three years.
The island of Kauai is known for its natural landscapes. Its wild-looking highlands have drawn film crews for such movies as Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Waimea Canyon State Park seduces visitors with numerous hiking trails and rugged scenery, not often associated with "postcard Hawaii." Trekkers would be hard-pressed to find the terrain, views and numerous unique specimens of flora and fauna anywhere on the mainland.
From farmers to surfers to fisherman, the idea of kuleana (responsibility, ownership, concern) has influenced the way the Hawaiians interact with their land. Taking care of their natural surroundings is not merely "the right thing to do" — it's part of the culture.
For surfers on Oahu's north shore and Waimea Bay, and cliff divers at Lanai's Kaunolu Point, the idea of playing within nature has created a unique dynamic between sporting culture and the land. Environmental stewardship (malama'aina) flows naturally from these subcultures because nature is such a big part of their identities.
There's no arguing that Hawaii is a touristy destination. But a majority of the state's landscape is natural and much of the culture involves living with nature in practical and fun-loving ways.
(MNN homepage photo: Jeff Kubina /Flickr)