Hawaii travel group tours island’s ugly realities

Hawaii looms large in the imagination of the U.S. mainland as a tourist paradise: beautiful beaches and volcanoes, delicious food, and the spirit of “aloha,” a spirit of welcoming. But aloha is a complicated concept, and for some, the tourist industry sells the idea of Hawaii as uncomplicated and without any problems.

DeTours, an educational group run by Kyle Kajihiro and Terry Keko’olani, tries to pull back the blinders people have on when they visit Hawaii. “It’s sort of an anti-tourist experience,” Kajihiro explained, laughing. DeTours highlights the ways that Hawaii is dominated by the military and the tourist industry by taking visitors to parts of Oahu where they can be exposed to a different part of Hawaii’s history. Typical trips last around half a day and include visits to sites like Pearl Harbor, areas that are being reclaimed environmentally and parts of Honolulu tourists are unlikely to visit. 

DeTours grew out of work Kajihiro and others did with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker activist group that works on a wide variety of peace and justice issues. The group had worked on anti-militarism campaigns since the 1970s, both to highlight the loss of land from Indigenous Hawaiians and to protest the connections between Hawaii and U.S. military power as it was used in Vietnam. Kaho’olawe Island, a sacred place for Hawaiians, was used by the military solely to test explosives: One such test in 1965 involved detonating 500 tons of TNT at a time to replicate the effect of small nuclear blasts. These kinds of tests led to the occupation of the island by Hawaiians beginning in 1976; by 1993, the military ceded the island back to the state. 

To promote understanding and learning, the American Friends Service Committee frequently organizes trips for people to visit and learn about other countries. But in Hawaii, Kajihiro and others noticed that they often had very progressive friends who, when visiting Hawaii, nevertheless treated the islands like a playground. “It was always striking that when people would think about Hawaii, their critical thinking would sort of turn off,” Kajihiro reflected.

Kyle Kajihiro stands in front of royal residence Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaii, Jan. 13, 2021.

Kyle Kajihiro stands in front of royal residence Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawaii, Jan. 13, 2021.

Sean Marrs/Special to SFGATE

For Kajihiro, the tourism industry has sold this idea of Hawaii as a multicultural paradise without any problems, and that idea made no sense to him. “Part of the interaction between tourism and militarism is that one masked the violence of the other, and the other provided the force which maintains this unjust presence.” 

Kaijihiro and Keko’olani wanted to break people out of this habit. At first, they worked mostly by word-of-mouth. “We kept getting asked to do it,” Kajihiro explains. “We never advertise, it’s not something we actually set up but it just became a thing.” Many of their clients are students, with many groups coming from the University of Hawaii, but they get visitors coming from the mainland too. 

The tours that Kajihiro and others lead are meant to shed light on the history of the Hawaiian islands that are covered up by militarism and U.S. imperialism. Few people know what Pu’uloa refers to, but they’re much more likely to know it by another name: Pearl Harbor. For Indigenous Hawaiians, the harbor was a vital source of food, as its structure made it ideal for aquaculture. That is lost today, and Pu’uloa and what it represented was destroyed when it was transformed into a military base. It’s now a Superfund site.

A typical tour starts at Iolani Palace, which was the royal residence for the Hawaiian monarchy until the coup ended native Hawaiian rule in 1893. Visitors then head to Camp H.M. Smith, headquarters of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, a drive through the Pearl Harbor base, a stop at the Pearl Harbor memorial, and a stop at the Hanakehau Learning Farm. Hanakehau is one of the many entities and organizations that exist to try and reclaim Hawaiian land. Drives through Honolulu also visit places like the Kalihi neighborhood that are working-class and immigrant neighborhoods dealing with their own issues, such as racism and discrimination.

“We use that drive to acclimate people to some of the contradictions … these are not places where tour buses would go,” Kajihiro explained. For Kajihiro, the goal behind DeTours is to raise awareness of these issues, but more importantly, to get them to imagine what Hawaii might look like without militarism.

Lunch at Hanakehau becomes a discussion about alternative paths for the islands, and how visitors can play a part in that. “We want folks to see Hawaii as a place where they have relationships and responsibilities,” with many discussions centering around the idea of “kuleana,” a Hawaiian word loosely translating to responsibility in English. For visitors, this means educating others when they go back home and challenging the U.S. government’s policies.
Kajihiro also explained that he sees the group’s mission as reflecting their own kuleana. The military’s role in Hawaii isn’t solely to serve as a base of operations, but as a place to project power all across the globe. During the 1960s, military activities in Hawaii could be felt in Vietnam; today, they are felt in Afghanistan. “The wars that emanate from Hawaii, that are commanded from here, the techniques and technologies that are tested and perfected here, how is that harming folks in other parts of the world? That’s an aspect of the responsibility that we bear.”
When asked about what COVID-19 has done to the island economy, Kajihiro’s take was twofold. On the one hand, the COVID pandemic has deeply harmed the Hawaiian economy. “We have one of the highest unemployment rates because we’ve been addicted to the tourism economy.” However, from Kajihiro’s perspective, “it’s forced us to reckon with the environmental and social costs of tourism as a mainstay of the economy. What’s the point of having all of this if it’s making life harder and more expensive?” One more positive aspect: Kajihiro has also seen more community solidarity through food drives or organizing to connect farmers with consumers. 
DeTours and other groups like it are a vision for a different kind of tourism. For most people and most tourist-centered organizations, you go somewhere for a little while and then you leave. What Kajihiro and Keko’olani want people to do is take some part of that with them and to use travel to sharpen their own sense of responsibility toward the rest of the world.

Zeb Larson is a writer, historian and software developer. Find more of his work at zeblarson.com.