Why do I keep finding masks in Naupaka? An anthropologist observes mask use by tourists in Hawaiʻi

Why do I keep finding masks in Naupaka? An anthropologist observes mask use by tourists in Hawaiʻi

Mask discarded in naupaka, a native plant on the coast of Hawai‘i. Taken by author April 19, 2021.

By Emily Creek

Disclaimer: Even as I write this the CDC has changed guidelines for vaccinated individuals. At the time of writing Maui county had implemented a secondary post-arrival test while the State of Hawai’i now has a vaccine passport. In July the rules will change again, and Hawaii will begin accepting all vaccines as a way of being exempt from being quarantined. At the time of writing this essay, COVID mask mandates in Maui county remained in place…you are to be wearing your mask anywhere public (walking on beach, sitting and not consuming at a restaurant, on heavily trafficked trails, etc). And the guidelines currently state that indoors and at gatherings masks must be worn. All these things add to the complexity of this essay. Despite the changes, this essay comes from the vantage point of the rules in place when written–the overwhelming impact of post-pandemic “revenge” tourism continues to deeply impact the people of Hawai’i, Maui, and specifically my small and remote community.


I work in a heavily trafficked destination in a remote area of Maui. What I observe daily is droves of tourists coming to hike, and a lot of discarded masks in naupaka…and not covering faces.*

Here are the Maui County rules:

  1. Hawaii Safe Travels app:
    • Requires a pre-travel Covid test by select partners 72-hrs in advance of your flight. We can already see the flaw in 72-hrs–it gives a lot of space for getting exposed to covid before arriving in Hawaiʻi.
    • As of May 11, a post-arrival test is now also required for travelers.
    • You sign off–in a legally binding document–that you will follow all Maui-County and Hawaiʻi State Covid mandates, including mask wearing.
  2. Within Maui County the mask mandate states that masks must be worn indoors and outside. With the exception of times when there is over 6ft of distance between parties. (Note: As of May 25 the Mask Mandate was lifted outdoors. Masks in large outdoor groups heavily recommended. Mask  mandate indoors was unchanged.)
County of Maui COVID-19 public health guideline, 2021.

So you’d think that the simple request to wear masks would be followed by those making the choice to visit these islands in the midst of a pandemic. Unfortunately, Hawaiʻi has a history of tourists in some cases quite literally sh*tting on the fragile natural and cultural resources of the islands. Such terrible behavior has continued with COVID-19. To understand why tourists aren’t wearing masks I believe we need to go back to history. First we will cover some of the epidemics that arrived in the Hawaiian islands as the result of “contact” and how that affects local attitudes of covid and then we will go through examples of visitor patterns of behavior over the centuries.

This isn’t the first time that disease has come to Hawaiʻiʻs shores. History gives us many examples of disease and quarantine in Hawaiʻi: Smallpox and measles ravaged Oahu particularly Honolulu and Chinatown. Inter-island travel was not allowed, people had to remain home. These diseases wiped out huge percentages of the Native Hawaiian population in a manner of years. In 1865 King King Kamehameha V signed “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” sending anyone, mostly Native Hawaiians, convicted of having Hansen’s disease to the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokaʻi. This ban was not lifted until all patients were formally paroled in 1969. Eight thousand people were taken from their families and sent to isolation. We could dig into these examples and discuss how disease coming to the islands affected the Hawaiian communities more than any other community. How lineages were lost, language and culture threatened, the long-term familial trauma of the “separating illness” that was Hansenʻs Disease, and more. But I will simply encourage readers to pick up Ma’i Lepera: Disease and Displacement in Nineteenth-Century Hawai’i by Kerri A. Inglis, which weaves together a full picture of the role of disease in the colonization of Hawaiʻi and the long term effects of disease in the islands.

So, with all of this historical trauma, we can begin to understand why residents held “Tourists not welcome” signs at airports, why residents closed off their roads to prevent entry, and why the State of Hawaii and County of Maui took some of the more drastic measures within the United States. If those entering Hawaiʻi sign off that they will wear masks why are the facebook groups in my community are filled with the following statements every single day:

“County of Maui needs to put their mask signs in more places. They come in droves and most are unmasked.”

“They come onto our property unmasked and ask us questions!!!”

“No masks huh?” [in reference to a photo of an illegal tourists]

“ ʻAʻole the masks!”

“Enough already! There is so many people at [redacted location] there is no social distancing!”

“Kids can’t go to school, we can’t have weddings or sports or graduations but this is ok?!”

“Why are fines not being given out?”

“My aunty had a gathering get shut down being ONE person over legal gathering size [keiki in the same household] but this is fine? (in reference to a massive beach party that occurred)

I could fill a 300-page book of resident complaints about tourists trespassing and not wearing masks, but these provide a glimpse of just some of the many responses.

Again, to answer this question we must look no further than the first white people to accidentally arrive in Hawaiʻi: Cook and his crew. From the first moments, people arriving in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi have debated the laws of the land. From Cook’s men attacking Hawaiians because the chiefs refused to end the kapu for him to 19th century land grabbers and the illegal annexation and overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, we have many examples of wealthy men writing home to their military to send help to allow them to get their way in the islands.  And in the end, they succeeded in taking the land. So we see history re-invent and repeat itself. (see: Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands by Gavan Daws and Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Queen Liliuokalani for some specific examples across history).

I wanted to know a bit more from the tourist perspective so I asked a couple of visitors if they wore masks, what they knew about the rules, why they chose Hawaiʻi as their vacation spot during a pandemic and so forth. This research was informal. Although I work directly with tourists I did not ask people at my place of work. Instead, I posted an invite for people to respond on social media, and a few friends shared with people they knew who had traveled. About six people responded. The responses I received included people who said “We wore masks when needed,” and “We were comfortable coming here because of the pre-travel test.” Another response was “We knew what was on the website in regards to mask rules.” On the news and at my place of work we have had people tell us, “My state doesn’t require masks, so I am comfortable without one.” Plenty of people at work have been rude to staff, argued with us about the rules, and even gotten angry because we wear masks.

So, I leave you with this: We should not be surprised that many of the tourists who have come to Hawaiʻi to escape the stresses of their pandemic year are not following the mask and social distancing rules. Tourists have been disrespecting Hawaiian lands and cultural sites for generations. There is a mentality of invincibility when people go on vacation, and Hawaiʻi is seen as a playground. The “playground” where I live has had over fifteen rescues and five deaths in the last six months because tourists did not listen to posted signs and warnings about the weather. In the past two weeks alone we’ve had double the number of rescues. Residents pay taxes for these expensive helicopter rescues. Tourism’s hold on Hawaiʻi goes against the desires of many in my community.

Hawaiians continue to be disenfranchised from their land, their beaches, their surf, their fish, and their cultural sites. Important events like the Merrie Monarch festival and Makahiki have been cancelled–while tourists have been allowed to gather maskless at restaurants, on whale watching tours, and bring their families of twenty for weddings. Mask use highlights a much deeper problem: The immediate concern is the health of the people of these islands, but the long-term concern is the sustainability of tourism. Unfortunately the tourism authority and airlines cannot weed out which tourists will come to Hawaiʻi with respect and which will not. And to be sure, there are respectful tourists. But the pandemic has highlighted the great importance of coming up with creative solutions for the long-term benefit of Hawaii’s people and ecosystem.

Since the day Cook landed, and missionaries and businessmen began making their way here, Hawaiʻi has been seen as a place to take from. It has been a strategic, valuable, and desirable territory for outsiders for a long, long time. Today, Hawaiʻi to (many but not all) guests is an exciting and exotic get-a-way. But the laws of Hawaiʻi, be that the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi or State of Hawaiʻi, or the country of Maui, or the desires of communities, have never been respected by those coming here.

For those with money like Mark Zuckerburg and the businessmen of old, it is a place to grab land for the sake of land grabbing. For tourists and other visitors with less money, it is a place to live out any number of fantasies. Mask use, just like obeying signs posted for safety or cultural respect, doesn’t fit into the Hawaiian vacation fantasy very well. But as the pandemic continues on and visitation increases to pre-pandemic levels, we see how generations of exploitation manifest in new ways. And so this is what we are left with: overtourism, and the Hawaiian islands reaching breaking point. Masks are just one small part of a much deeper problem.

*Naupaka is a native plant that is commonly found in coastal areas in Hawai’i.

Emily is an anthropologist and storyteller. She obtained her MA at University of Denver studying the contemporary dance community in Reykjavik Iceland. Sticking to volcanic islands, she currently lives in a small community on the island of Maui where she conducts oral history work.