The Aloha in Hawaii is Gone

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Aloha in Hawaii: When you picture Hawaii you likely have images of beautiful exotic women in grass skirts, donning you with fresh flower leis as you step off the plane onto the hot tarmac. There is a soft breeze and rustle of the tall coconut palm trees that line the drive, and the faint strumming of a ukulele is constant in the background.

At least that’s what I picture.

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

In some ways, it’s not far off the truth either. Flower leis are everywhere, ukuleles can occasionally be heard, and coconut palm trees abound. The ocean is clear and beautiful, and the waves are hypnotically relaxing.

But as for the woman in the grass skirt with a permanent smile on her face…not so much.

Okay, I didn’t realistically envision grass skirts everywhere – that’s an exaggeration, but Hawaii is supposed to be known for something called “Aloha”; a phrase not only meaning hello and goodbye, but also indicative of a state of mind – love.

See also: Learning the Hawaiian Language

If you go to a place that is reputed to have “lots of Aloha”, you know you will see friendly faces, be privy to generous gestures, and will feel like you are part of the small community that makes up these tiny isolated islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In a place with Aloha, people say hello (or “aloha”) to one another in the street, everybody smiles, and people come to one another’s (even a stranger’s) assistance without hesitation in times of need. Kind of like what we experienced in British Columbia, Canada; a place that immediately felt like home to us.

But sadly, the Aloha here in Hawaii is gone. And I’m not the only one to observe this. It is evident. We may as well be on the mainland, in some impersonal big city. Nobody says hello/aloha to passers-by, it is like pulling teeth to get a smile from the cashier, small talk with strangers is looked upon as creepy, and in some cases the locals are downright cruel.

If a local passes you by either on foot or in a car, more often than not it is uncomfortable. I consider myself to be a pretty forthright and friendly person, but now I try not to make eye contact with anybody. I avoid the frequent cold looks, or just plain sour expressions that plague so many faces. Quite frankly I am scared by the locals, who often look to be more dangerous than friendly.

Perfect example: when we were taking a stroll down memory lane just last week, we drove by Pohoiki – a very local and somewhat isolated beach on the east coast. Tourists are regularly assaulted there by the locals. And when we drove through this last time, a number of locals had actually set up road blocks in the middle of the road by placing boulders in each of the two lanes. There was just enough room to squeeze through, and we knew better than to stop for this rough-looking crowd, so we eased on by. Looking in the rear view mirror, we could see them yelling and cursing after us, and one of them actually picked up a rock. Thank goodness they didn’t throw it.

The tourists are generally happier (heck – they’re on vacation), but they don’t often understand the concept of “aloha” and tend to bring their mainland ways to the island. Last week we spent the night at a hostel in a shared room. One girl (albeit young, conceited, and ignorantly stupid), had the gall to answer a Skype call on her computer and talk for 15 minutes in a less-than-hushed-tone…at 3am. There were six other people in the room who had the pleasure of enduring her conversation. Who does this?!?!

No wonder the locals look bitter – maybe they’re tired of giving and never getting back. Or maybe it’s the other way around – I don’t know.

A fellow writer on Wise Bread (a site I write for), has much the same thing to say about his experiences at home. Overall negativity and lack of aloha seems to be everywhere.

Kelly’s family also has the same to say for Edmonton; a place they called home for thirty years. When they moved there they arrived in a small town where the cashier knew your name and “aloha” was everywhere. They left a medium town that thought it was a big city with nowhere near the same sort of aloha it once had. I felt more aloha in Toronto than I ever did in Edmonton.

Why is the Aloha in Hawaii Gone?

First of all, I can’t speak to all the Hawaiian islands, since I have only really gotten to know the Big Island. But here are some suggestions as to why the aloha has disappeared. These suggestions are not purely off the top of my head either – they are a culmination of many conversations with many people on this topic.

The Mainland Presence

If there is no aloha on the mainland, and people from these places are visiting (and relocating to) Hawaii en mass, then it stands to reason that many of the mainland issues and mentalities will simply transplant themselves here. The language, shops, and overall culture is not so different from the mainland that people who visit or move here feel the need to adapt to new ways; they can just bring their old ways here. And presto: now you have a mainland presence and state of mind taking over Hawaii.

Too many Tourists?

Maybe the locals are frustrated with the number of tourists here. Too many unwitting cultural faux pas and ignorant trespassers will wear anybody down after a while. Combine that with a long history of cultural oppression, and the locals could understandably lose some of their desire to be friendly to anybody.

In chatting with a fellow who has traveled extensively through Asia, he suggested that the local Thai people are not very friendly. I was surprised at this, as it was my impression that Thai hospitality is renowned. He instead suggested that people in the Philippines are way friendlier, since they have not seen nearly the amount of tourist traffic that Thailand has. Although only a theory, this seems to be another example of how mass tourism can kill aloha.


Volcano Off-Gases (VOG) are being blamed for a lot these days. It is always a factor on some level, and it is a common part of the local weather reports. And with the volcano here erupting up a storm again, VOG levels are through the roof. It affects people with respiratory problems, creates a constant haze that obstructs the sun (we haven’t really seen the sun and true blue sky here in what seems like months), and could also be the root of some other less tangible problems.

Everybody we talk to is going through something strange. Karma is off; people are easily frustrated; bad moods and overreactions are common; and there is an inexplicable negative slant to everything. Many many people are wondering if it has to do with the VOG levels, the toxicity of the air, and the general energy of this island which is physically growing and changing and evolving.

This theory may be a little “out there” for somebody who doesn’t believe in unscientific forces, but spend a little time living on Pele’s turf (Pele is the volcano goddess of fire), and you too may become a believer. There is some serious power to these islands – good and otherwise.

No wonder the Punatics want life to go back to what it was decades ago. I would too if I had created a life for myself in a beautiful place full of aloha years ago and watched it slowly disappear.

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3 thoughts on “The Aloha in Hawaii is Gone”

  1. Something I forgot to mention which is another perfect example of the lack of Aloha here…the neighbours of the hostel we are living at have been local to Hawaii forever. When the property manager moved in, he made a concerted effort to get to know the neighbourhood and create some “ohana” (meaning family and good will). It was only after a year and a half that she even acknowledged his presence and started to talk to him.

    Aloha very much to you too!

  2. Nora,

    I really enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing your experiences with the culture on the big island. As somebody who seriously was considering moving there in search of a more peaceful life, let just say.. I’m seriously reconsidering.


  3. Hi Andy,

    Aw man! Now I feel bad for making you reconsider!

    All I can talk about is the island I know, which is the Big Island. The other islands all have different feels and you may find happiness in any one of the Hawaiian Islands. And there are those who don’t share my sentiments. It all depends on where you live, the people you associate with, and your overall expectations.
    I will say that when we arrived here almost six months ago, we shortly found ourselves making plans to come back for a further six months – we loved the place. Now, we are glad to be leaving, and don’t understand how some people have managed to stay here for as long as they have.

    But there are those who have had great experiences here. I guess it is all about your own perspective. Give it a shot – you may well find that you find the peace you are looking for in the right Hawaiian nook. All you can do is try…

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