Aloha, Tranquillity

On the Hawaiian island of Molokai, residents welcome tourists with open arms -- as long as they don't disturb the laid-back groove


KAUNAKAKAI, Hawaii -- Here on Molokai, the sleepiest of the major Hawaiian islands - the one that calls itself the "Friendly Isle" - a sign on the door of Friendly Market Center says, "Aloha spirit required here. If you can't share it today, please visit us some other time. Mahalo."

It's not that this family-owned market in Kaunakakai's downtown - a three-block stretch of low wood-front buildings - doesn't want business. It just doesn't welcome certain mainlanders.

"The visitors have been getting more rude and demanding," said Crystal Egusa, one of the managers. "They push to the front of the line screaming and yelling because things are not going their way. One visitor made my cashier cry by belittling her. We don't need that kind of business."

Residents are fed up with people who come to Molokai to get away from it all, then grumble about lack of conveniences. "Wherever they come from, they're used to having everything then and there," she said.

Things don't work that way on Molokai, where Kaunakakai is the main town and the island's population of about 7,000 is stubbornly fighting to preserve its laid-back lifestyle.

Islanders point to their more glamorous neighbor Maui, just nine miles southeast across the Pailolo Channel, as the epitome of everything they don't want to become: an island where high-rise hotels and condos have sprouted like palm trees, and Wal-Mart, Costco, KFC and Hard Rock Cafe have arrived.

What Molokai does have is the tranquillity of an unspoiled rural island with natural beauty - mountains and waterfalls and the lovely Halawa Valley. It can lay claim to being "the last Hawaiian place."

The island has only two hotels: the Polynesian-style, 54-room Hotel Molokai, which is decidedly less than deluxe and is partly a time share; and the upscale, 22-room Lodge at Molokai Ranch, which also operates a seaside camp of 40 rustic beachfront "tentalows" on the island's west end.

So it's not surprising that Molokai attracts the fewest visitors to Hawaii, only 76,000 in 2006. Maui averages 2.2 million annually.

It's not that Molokai doesn't want tourism - it took an economic hit when the pineapple industry pulled out in the 1980s - but, like the Friendly Market, it wants it on its own terms. And those don't include fancy faux luaus and other attractions staged for outsiders.

Indeed, last year the island, best known as home to Kalaupapa, the isolated former leper colony, adopted a responsible-tourism initiative based on community input. The goal is to develop a five-year plan that will increase jobs and small-business opportunities, but at a level that's acceptable to residents, protective of natural resources and respectful of native Hawaiian culture.

Davianna Pomaikai McGregor, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii and a part-time Molokai resident, pinpointed the island's dilemma. "Tourism is declining so badly here," yet residents are "very stubborn, tenacious about their land" and more resistant than those on the other islands to outside influences.

"Some call it the `not-so-friendly isle.' If you could separate tourism from sale of real estate, I think tourism would be more warmly embraced," McGregor said.

The islanders' resentment is focused mostly on mainlanders, who have snapped up prime real estate and built vacation mansions. These newcomers, McGregor said, often have a "me-first, me-only" attitude that offends longtime residents. "They come here to live in a rural community," then set about changing it to suit them.

Fairly or unfairly, island residents have earned a reputation as being against any change on the theory that saying no is always safer than saying yes. They said no to Holland America, which hoped to have the 1,266-passenger cruise ship Statendam call here in 2002 and 2003. Too much of a trade-off for too little benefit, islanders decided.

Cheryl Corbiell, a teacher who relocated here from the mainland, heads the responsible-tourism committee of the Molokai Enterprise Community. She's adamant that tourism policies be based not on what visitors want but on what residents are willing to share. "And we don't want them to go everywhere," she says.

Snorkeling is fine - in certain places. Kayaking is good, but "we don't want a flotilla of 25 kayaks." Hiking? Sure, but not "roaming all over the hills" without guides, possibly disturbing revered sites.

Ideal tourists, Corbiell said, value peace and quiet and "want a people experience, rubbing shoulders with locals in a local environment."

Although Molokai does not want tourism to be its No. 1 economic driver, it knows it needs to increase visitor numbers to improve its economy. Its tourism initiative emphasizes the importance of finding a balance where "sense of place is not overwhelmed by large-scale tourism," Corbiell said. "We want to share our authentic Hawaiian culture, not sell it."

Molokai can't market excitement - at least the man-made variety.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.