Tourism is the top industry in Hawaii. With its beautiful beaches, hiking trails, and rich history, it’s not hard to see why. I’ve lived here for years, and I am still in awe of the beauty here every single day! The views never get old, and I never run out of new places to explore.
Locals welcome you to Hawaii. Many locals love sharing the beauty of the Hawaiian islands with visitors. They love sharing what we know. And, let’s be real, many of us rely on tourism as our main source of income.
That being said, I think that it’s always a good idea to learn as much as you can before visiting a place. Hawaii has a language, culture, and history. Knowing these things can help you better appreciate the islands and will make sure you have a better stay here.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned that locals want visitors to know before coming to Hawaii.
Learning a few words in Hawaiian is greatly appreciated.
Hawaii is the only state that has two official languages: English and Hawaiian. Depending on which airline you fly, you might start to hear Hawaiian on your flight over here! It is also spoken in certain schools, banks, and other institutions.
Don’t worry, English is the main language spoken here. And while you can get along just fine without knowing any Hawaiian, there are two reasons to learn a few words before you come here.
First, there are some Hawaiian words that have made their way into the culture and are used instead of their English counterpart. You will see signs on trash cans that say “opala,” which simply means trash. Restrooms will say “wahine” for women and “kane” for men.
And second, I think that it is a sign of respect when you use Hawaiian words and phrases. It shows that you are making an effort to respect, understand, and learn from their culture.
Don’t worry; I put together a list of the most common Hawaiian words and phrases that you should know before you come to Hawaii. If nothing else, remember that aloha means hello and goodbye and that mahalo means thank you. If you don’t know what something means, just ask!
But don’t try to speak Pidgin.
A third language you might here is called Pidgin. Locals speak Pidgin in casual conversation. It’s a language that developed over many years, with influences from many different languages that immigrants brought here.
Although you might hear Pidgin and be able to understand it, don’t try to speak Pidgin to locals. It will come off as insulting.
Island time is a real thing. Relax.
We drive a certain way here in Hawaii. We don’t honk our horns, speed, or rush around. When we drive, we let people out of driveways. We let people turn left in front of us. We don’t cut people off. If someone takes a few seconds to move when the light turns green, we wait until blasting our horn. This is called driving with aloha, and, if you rent a car, you should try it. Highway speed limits are usually 55 miles per hour, with many places less than that. You will get pulled over if you go too fast. People drive “with aloha here,” and it’s important to try to drive like the locals do.
Service at bars and restaurants might take longer than you are used to. Trust me, as a born-and-raised New Yorker, this was tough for me to get used to, but now, when I go back to New York, everything seems to fast and rushed. Personally, I’d much rather be on island time. Embrace it. You might be surprised how much you love it.
Hawaii is the only state that honors royalty.
Some mainlanders might have a hard time understanding the importance of honoring Hawaii’s royalty. Keeping the legacy of Oahu’s royalty alive is deeply important in Hawaii, and many of Hawaii’s monarchs are revered and honored.
In fact, Hawaii celebrates many special holidays dedicated to monarchs, such as Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Day on March 26 and King Kamehameha I Day on June 11. On these days, many schools and other businesses will close. There will be parades and festivals that you should attend!
Many royal sites are of great importance in Hawaiian culture. Visit Iolani Palace to learn more about Queen Emma, the last monarch to live here. Visit the Bishop Museum to get a brief history of all Hawaiian monarchs and view some of their important artifacts. Learn as much as you can about Hawaii’s monarchs and the history of the islands.
Be respectful of sacred sites.
With Hawaii’s deep respect for its royalty and cultural history, there are many kapu (sacred sites) on the islands.
If you see a sign that says kapu, it is probably an ancient burial ground or a place where royalty lived.
Many of these sights might just look like piles of rocks to you, but they are sacred.
You might also see signs for heiau. These are Hawaiian temples. Some of these may be preserved; others may seem like hardly anything at all. Regardless, whenever you see kapu or heiau, show respect by keeping your voice down, not walking on sacred lands, and not leaving trash.
This is very important in Hawaii. You might remember Jennifer Lawrence in the news for scratching herself on the sacred rocks and making light of it. It did not go over well as many Hawaiians felt that she disrespected their culture.
Do not take anything from the beaches or parks.
According to the myth, Pele grows angry if anyone takes lava rock from her. And while you might be skeptical about this, there are way too many stories about people who have taken lava rock and have found themselves down on their luck.
Every year, people mail lava rock back to Hawaii’s national parks, hoping that Pele will forgive them.
Aside from that, it is illegal to take anything from any national park in the United States.
So, do not take any rocks, shells, or sand from the islands. Leave the beach exactly as you left it. Littering places a great danger to Hawaii’s already endangered species.
Respect the ‘aina (land).
Environmentalism is very important in Hawaii. Hawaiian traditions place great kuleana (responsibility) to care for the Hawaiian islands and its resources.
If you litter, take what doesn’t belong to you, or harass endangered species such as green sea turtles and monk seals, not only will you have “mana,” or bad luck, but you will be harming the land that is so sacred and precious.
To repeat the ‘aina, You can try to eat locally sourced foods, recycle, and clean up your trash. You can choose how to spend your money. Check out the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants, a program recognizing restaurants that reduce plastic waste and implement ocean-friendly practices. Restaurants must recycle, can’t use styrofoam, must use reusable utensils, and can’t use plastic bags for takeout.
Remove your shoes.
You will see shoe racks lining the front porches of many homes in Hawaii (including mine!). You will also see many stores selling signs that say “please remove your shoes” that people often hang up outside their home.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to a home in Hawaii, remember to remove your shoes. Do this before you even enter the home and leave your shoes outside.
Taking your shoes off is a sign of respect. It helps the host keep their home clean by preventing germs from being tracked inside. It’s very important in Hawaii.
Not everyone who lives in Hawaii is Hawaiian.
I call myself a New Yorker because I was born and raised in New York. But in Hawaii, only people with native Hawaiian ancestry are Hawaiians. Living in Hawaii does not make you Hawaiian.
Native Hawaiian is a racial classification. Native Hawaiians are the indigenous people of Hawaii, whose ancestors were the original Polynesians who settled in the islands. Today, only about 10 percent of Hawaii’s population is made up of Native Hawaiians.
People who have lived here their whole lives or for many years but are not of Hawaiian ancestry are simply called locals or “kamaaina.
You may have heard that there is tension between tourists and locals in Hawaii. As long as you show respect, treat people with kindness and aloha, and try your best to remember the culture and customs here, you will be fine.
So, review these points before you visit. Don’t speak Pidgin, don’t honk your horn, and learn a few Hawaiian words and phrases. Above all, embrace Hawaii for what it is and try to adapt as much as possible.
Many things in Hawaii might seem weird to you. But travel is about experiencing something new. So, learn about the culture. Visit some museums. Eat food that you are not used to. And embrace Hawaii for the beautiful place that it is