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Oahu, Hawaii - Paradise with a Social Cost

Updated: May 12, 2023

Not to be a downer, but there are a few things about travelling to Oahu that are hard to ignore. Oahu has all the iconic scenery that a lot of us – especially we Boomers – remember from the original Hawaii 5-0 with Jack Lord in the 1970s, and the original Magnum P.I. with Tom Selleck and John Hillman in the 80s. There is also a nostalgia from a Hawaii of the 1950s with the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, not to mention the fall-out of colonization by an imperial power that has left the indigenous people relegated to the margins much as has happened in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the continental United States.

There is a movement to prevent further hotel development up along the East and West side of the island, which makes sense as it is already prohibitively expensive for people to live on the island of Oahu. A taxi driver we met, Kim, explained how the U.S. military gives military personal a rental subsidy of between $2500 - $4000 per month. This has had the effect of enticing landlords to raise rents to match the subsidy. So an apartment that would normally have been worth $1000 per month, is now renting for $3000 per month. People earning $15 - $25 per hour cannot afford to pay the rent AND feed the kids. A bus driver from a previous trip talked about the need to make the minimum living wage $30 per hour. We agree – less than $30 per hour and you are living on the street as we have seen an increase in people without housing, and sadly more and more seniors being priced out of their homes. Add in the gentrification of Honolulu and Waikiki with high-end retailers (used to be small mom n pop businesses and artisans in the International Marketplace) and hoteliers and you have the perfect storm to keep the majority of the local people, and especially the people who make our lattes and clean the hotel rooms, among those precariously housed or unhoused. While we enjoy visiting Hawaii, we also know we have been part of the problem as tourists to this beautiful set of islands.

There is a documentary we saw a few years ago after seeing the headline above on a visit to Oahu a few years back. It's called 'No Room in Paradise' and documents the struggles of local, and indigenous people who have been moved from their traditional lands to small enclaves - mostly on the West side of Oahu - and homeless camps. It is about colonization and gentrification, and what happens when we abandon community and connection for unfettered capitalism and bow down to the free market. We know - this is a travel blog and videos, so what are we doing getting all political. Well, if we don't acknowledge our contribution to the damage done by tourism, gentrification and militarization of a society we are complicit in our silence.

The U.S. Military's contribution to unaffordable housing by way of subsidies for enlisted people, which leaves out those without the means to support themselves. Check out this article on the military housing subsidies here.

So, what can we do as responsible tourists? Something we encourage is a harm-reduction approach. This can be applied to drug use and also to tourism (seat belts in a car are harm reduction). We make a point of not staying in Air BnB as this eats up affordable housing in that reduced demand increases costs. So if suites, rooms, and apartments that would otherwise have been rented monthly by locals are now nightly by tourists, the dearth of housing increases demand and thereby costs. Check out this article about Air BnB. You may need to enter your email to read the entire article - we believe it is worthwhile to check out. Or, there is another good article from the CBC here.

Another way to practice harm-reduction tourism is to avoid, as much as possible, the large corporate hotel chains. This may not always be possible, but whenever it is possible we encourage people to do so. There are many benefits - you not only keep your tourism money in the community as smaller, family run, or local chains, spend their money back in their communities, but we have always had unique experiences in the smaller hotels, hostels and pensions. These are almost always in unique buildings, and have their own unique flavour that you have as part of your travel memories. Staying in a corporate chain hotel - you could be anywhere in the same room in Hawaii, Dublin, Lisbon or Barcelona - they tend to look identical. There is something to be said for familiarity, but that familiarity also prevents people from experiencing new cultures, people, and ideas. Most importantly new ideas. We live in a polarized world, and the antidote to this, much like any addiction, is connection. There is a great video by Johann Hari speaking about addiction that you can access here. He wrote the book, "Chasing The Scream", which is fantastic if you are interested in the 'war on drugs'. And if you believe you understand the war on drugs - here is a quiz you can take to see where you are at - here.

Our favourite hotel on the island of Oahu is The Royal Grove Hotel - run by the Fong family since the 1950s. In fact, Mrs. Fong was the first female hotel owner in the state. Both Mr., and Mrs. Fong have passed away - it is now owned/run by their son. The Royal Grove has a great community - be sure to check out ukulele nights every Wednesday from 7:00 - 9:00pm. And we should mention it is one of the very few that do not charge an amenity fee, and many rooms have full kitchens, or kitchenettes.

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