Torres: The Islands Aren’t Your School Break Resort


Claire Peterson

(Design by Claire Peterson | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Gaby Torres, Opinion Writer


Hawai’i and the Caribbean Islands, namely Puerto Rico, are exoticized and exploited to provide a “paradise” experience for mainlanders to the detriment of islanders. Colonization stole these islands from their people, and they continue to suffer from its effects through neocolonialist practices and unwelcome tourism. Now, with historic landmarks destroyed and beaches marred, residents of the islands are taking a stand against the mistreatment of their land and people.

A Brief History of Colonization in Hawai’i and Puerto Rico

Hawai’i did not willingly join the United States. The moment American soldiers set food on their land, colonial violence destroyed the nation and stripped native Hawaiians of their autonomy. In 1893, the Sovereign Kingdom of Hawai’i was illegally overthrown by the U.S. government, and shortly after, the native Hawaiian language was banned. Meanwhile, American military presence proliferated on the archipelago, bringing mainland diseases that decimated Hawaiian natives.

Puerto Rico, one of the world’s oldest colonies, had been under Spanish rule when the U.S. took control in 1898. It’s a colony without sovereign independence of its own and has been at the disposal of its settlers for centuries. Early sugar plantations on the island hired natives and paid them poverty wages, and American women benefit from birth control blind to the fact that Puerto Rican women were used to test it.

We must not forget the colonial history of the islands. It is imperative that we analyze the victimization of these nations with the aim of discontinuing exploitation.

Effects of Tourism in Hawai’i

Tourists fail to give the islands’ culture and land the respect it deserves. “We feel disrespect towards our people, our culture, our ʻāina, and wildlife,” said Monica Owens, a Hawai’i native from Kapolei O’ahu. “[Tourists] feel they have some sort of entitlement.”

As long as there is demand for tourism in the islands, businesses will find ways to supply. But it comes at the cost of cultural landmarks. In Hawai’i, a 22-acre ancient burial site near Keoneloa was torn up and relocated to a single-acre burial site on a resort for use as the main attraction. Even in death, exploitation of native Hawaiians for settler profit continues.

“If you come to our island and you want to learn about our culture, and you respect us and our wildlife, absolutely come visit us,” Owens expressed. “But when you come because you want to post pictures on Instagram that you are on the beach in Hawaii, just stay home.”

U.S. government rule disregards the needs of native Hawaiians in favor of the tourist economy. In Maui, a water shortage last year devastated residents, yet surplus water usage fines mocked these residents as hotels and resorts circumvented restrictions. As a result, tourists can dismiss their impact on the island, instead taking great care to find their perfect island souvenir.

“It’s not as simple as taking a vacation to Yellowstone,” Owens remarked. “You’re visiting an entire island and a very delicate population.”

Thanks to tourism, the high cost of living makes it difficult for Hawaiians, with 73% living in vulnerable financial situations. Nevertheless, Hawaiians fight back, with Honolulu introducing legislation requiring all short-term rental stays to be a minimum of 90 days.

“This is about protecting our place,” said Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi in a statement regarding a surge in Airbnbs. “First and foremost, this is about getting our residential neighborhoods back. This is a form of managing tourism, but it’s also about getting housing back on the market and protecting the natural resources on O‘ahu for decades to come.”

Effects of Tourism in Puerto Rico

Coastal gentrification in Puerto Rico plagues Boriquas, which is a term used to describe native Puerto Ricans that comes from their native language. As a people proud of their land, Boriquas take special care of their beaches, and by law, all beaches in Puerto Rico must have public access. But developers skirt the law by privatizing the land surrounding the beaches and blocking beach entrances.

After Hurricane Maria, an apartment complex rebuilt its private pool on a public beach, which is home to an endangered breed of hawksbill sea turtle. Boriquas rightfully protested this violation of their land and were met with government police presence. A year later, activists took matters into their own hands and tore down the illegal pool, but the conflict illustrated the government’s priority of protecting outsiders’ private property.

Beachfront pools aren’t the only way tourism destabilizes Puerto Rican cities. The Puerto Rican government offers tax breaks to American citizens who move to the island in an effort to bring revenue into the economy. This government-sponsored gentrification led to a rise in the cost of living for Boriquas — residents can no longer afford rent, and their beloved landmarks have been flooded by colonizing tourists.

“It feels like Hurricane Maria placed a ‘For Sale’ sign on the island,” said Gloria Cuevas Viera, a resident of Puerto Rico. The tax break commodifies the everyday life of Boriqua into a sightseeing tour for rich Americans.

In the past two decades, the Puerto Rican government has destroyed affordable housing in favor of selling land to Americans. A resident displaced by an American landlord taking advantage of the tax break said, “I call them colonizing invaders because that’s how they act.” Even Puerto Rican musician Bad Bunny uses his platform to highlight the plight of Boriquas, with his latest music-video-turned-investigative-documentary, “Aquí Vive Gente.”

Americans reap the rewards of islander labor when they participate in unwelcome tourist economies. Our privilege as mainlanders allows us to book vacations to the islands, for the low price of environmental destruction and cultural erasure.

Your vacation does not take precedence over island citizens in crisis. As your spring break group chat scopes potential vacation packages, I implore you to remember the words of the islanders: “Gringo Go Home.”


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