The Tactful Tourist

I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

I’ve been working on writing about my favorite place in the world: Kaua’i. In a way, it is a simple essay to write; the scenery is gorgeous, adventures prolific and the cultural history is extremely interesting.

Words fail me.

This place means so much to me that I find it indescribable. The blend of beauty, power and the socio-economic struggles of this place make it more complex than describing the dysfunctionality of your own family lineage, with a touch of racism and politics on the side. There is so much more than meets the eye.

There’s no doubt about it; Kaua’i is beautiful. Over a million visitors pour into the airports of the Garden Isle each year, mostly congregating to areas such as Po’ipu and Princeville. They drive up to Koke’e to visit the Kalalau lookout, perhaps hike to Hanakapi’ai beach, maybe even breach their car rental agreement and drive to Polihale State Park. They return home to tell their friends and families how beautiful it is and how much less crowded it is than Oahu (because tourists hate being around other tourists.)

This is where it gets complicated. This is where issues of localism, environment, culture and tourism blur between lines of a profoundly complicated history. This is where my role on the island becomes complicated as well.

I am a traveler. I am a tourist.

But I am also kama’aina of these islands. They continue to teach me to carry this feeling of respect and humility where ever I go.

A good reminder on the top of Sleeping Giant, Kauai.

Kauai has taught me so much about culture, life, light and aloha. I’ve gained practical skills like learning to read the ocean, how to rock hop up mossy boulders to secret waterfalls, and I can pretty much understand Hawaiian pidgin.

It has also taught me how to be a good tourist.

The longer I spend time in the Hawaiian Islands, the more I realize how much I have to learn about these volcanic rocks in the middle of the ocean and the people who inhabit them. I’ve dedicated my time to learning about the cultural and ecological history of this evolutionarily unique place, only to realize that my knowledge equates to a small fraction of all there is to learn. This place that I opened my heart to learning about, has taught me how much I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the most important lessons one can learn as a tourist.

Never assume you know.

I’ve always loved the outdoors and teaching people about local culture. Although I love both these things, I never idealized being a tour guide. You could say tourism chose me. I’ve worked as a server, a zip-line tour guide, crewing boats and giving snorkel tours on Maui and Kauai. I’ve seen tourism at its best and worst.

The bests are easy: people who genuinely care about the islands. They want to learn as they travel. They find the Hawaiian culture fascinating. They see the dichotomy of a stolen land which was once self-sufficient and now barely survives on tourism. They appreciate the natural surrounding not as an amusement park built for people but as beautiful land and ocean that allows us to drink water, breathe air. Yes, these are the best kind of tourists.

The worst kind of tourists are the ones that make your skin crawl. You know you’ve seen them. Maybe you’ve even been one. They can frequently be seen standing in the middle of oncoming traffic, taking a picture of a chicken. They pack their suitcases and leave their brains at home. Everything they see is there to perform for them. They have no concept of island time and are in a hurry although they are on vacation (wouldn’t want to miss dinner reservations.) They planned this trip solely so they can brag later to their friends. They want everything to be like home but different. They came here because things are different, but it makes them uncomfortable.

And they want to know why.

Look chickens!!!

This is the part where I will give examples of all the idiotic questions tourists have asked my friends and I who work in tourism. Disclaimer: there’s no harm in asking questions. In reality, it all comes from not knowing. Curiosity is fine. The problem is that many people don’t think before they ask.

Let me enlighten you.


Q: Does the water go all the way around the island?

A: Yes, that is the definition of an island.

Did you attend elementary school?


Q: What time do you turn the waterfalls on?

A: Um, nobody is really in charge of that.

I guess it depends how much it’s been raining…


Q: So what holds up the islands?

A: Sea turtles, dude. (inwardly laughing)

I could go into details of the geologic concept that the Hawaiian archipelago is a volcanic island chain, but your head might explode.


Q: So do you live here?

A: Yes, I work where I live.

Either that or I take my private jet to the mainland everyday.


It’s good to ask questions, but don’t do it with a sense of entitlement. Every time these questions are asked, it is because they feel like they deserve to know.

So here’s a hint: be a tactful tourist. Know that you don’t know. Believe me, you will see far more if you don’t have your head up your ass.

“True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know”

~ Confucius

59 responses to “The Tactful Tourist

      • I’m going to be the cranky person here – I’ve lived in many tourist towns all over the American west. In every town there are apocryphal stories of those questions being asked, but no one can actually say THEY have been personally asked the questions. (where do the deer turn into elk, when do they turn the geysers on, who turns the waterfalls on, when do they let the animals out, etc…)

        I chalk it up to tourist town denizens venting. Although I’m always amused (no, angered) by the irony of people whose livelihoods depend upon tourists bashing the people they depend upon.

        That said – I very much liked your post. Respect the place you are traveling in. Enjoy it for what it is, good and bad. Maybe meet some of the people. Easier said than done for most of us, but a beautiful goal.

      • You must keep a sense of humor about your livelihood, as with anything. Sometimes we have to laugh to keep from crying: at times, the stupidity was unbearable. In all seriousness, those were real questions, asked by real people. Another good one: I can personally tell you while sea kayak guiding in the San Juan Islands, I was asked everyday what sea level we were at. I mean, C’MON PEOPLE, you are SEA kayaking. Call it venting, or just the need to relate to others working in the industry. I definitely respect you bringing up the other side of the argument. I appreciate it! Thanks for reading!

  1. This reminds me of a quote that I like by Martin Buber, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
    Love your blog!

  2. Some of my fellow tourists make me cringe when I’m abroad due to the way they behave. Seems like sometimes they forget that they are a guest in that country. *rolls eyes*

    Oh, well. Like you said, the best travelers are there to learn. Congrats on the FP.

  3. I try to keep this in mind from the other side too–living in a tourist town, we have gotten to know lots of great people (and a few jerks). It’s not always easy to share paradise. Sometimes, I just tell them to take a left on hwy 53, right on I-35, and continue for four hours to get to the casino 😉

  4. yes, these questions… when I was working on a cruise ships questions like: ” do the stairs go up or down?” or :” are there waves in the pool because it is seawater?” were daily routine…but I still remember them after more than 20 years and they still put a smile on my face..

  5. I like the quote from Anthony Bourdain that posted. Traveling is important and as a person who has gone backwards (Born in Hawaii and now on the mainland), I appreciate the culture more and more.

    One day while walking through the lava flows on the Big Island, we found the petroglyphs that were carved into the rocks in a brutally barren area. If the lava flowed one way or the other, the petroglyphs would be gone. But here they were, telling the story from the past. A tourist who just arrives and hangs out in Waikiki will never see this and have an appreciation for what the land holds. One can only experience by exploring.

  6. Love, love, love Hawai’i, the aloha spirit and, well, everything about it. Went to Kaua’i for the second time over the summer, blogged a bit about it if you want to check it out.

  7. Kaua’i is my favorite place on Earth as well. There is something otherworldly and enchanting about it. I cried…literally…cried…when I had to get on the plane and leave after 2 magical weeks. Descending back into the urban madness of Southern California after Kaua’i felt like waking up from a dream…back to reality. I find your points about tourists ring true as well. I try to blend in and become as invisible as possible when I visit somewhere new…and just observe. It’s interesting what one sees when they close their mouths and open their eyes. Great post.

  8. I love those Islands, and have been to some awesome places around the world and as for “those tourists”, they are everywhere. I like to go and eat the local food and see who they really are, not what they are trying to be for the tourists.
    Great post
    Be well

  9. As someone who just started traveling on her own for the first time, this was good to read. And so, so accurate. Cheers!

  10. I used to work in Banff, Canada. It’s gorgeous and in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. It was amazing the number of tourists who asked : “Do you put the mountains away at night?” and “How much do the mountains weigh?” Still makes me laugh. 😀

  11. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wisdom. I’ve only been fortunate enough to visit Hawaii once (my wife has relatives) but I’ve never had the good fortune of seeing Kaua’i. Hopefully our next trip (fingers crossed).

  12. Lovely post. I worked at a thermal pools complex on the South Island of New Zealand for a number of years and tourists would ask when coming in whether it was also raining inside the complex! Erm, yes, the same sky covers both. Bless them all

  13. “and are in a hurry although they are on vacation (wouldn’t want to miss dinner reservations.) ”
    ..truly speaking, i have always wanted to tell that on the face of few people!…

  14. Pingback: The Tactful Tourist « charlesnyangiti·

  15. I am glad you are Freshly Pressed as all islanders will notice you are more important with crisp duds! 🙂 Seriously though, with the FP going on I got yo read your wonderful post and am now interested in this place.

    I will depart in about a week to visit Belize and hope to experience some of the same things you mentioned in your post. I know it will be one of thoes “experiences of a lifetime” and i plan to write extensively about it, hopefully while I am there and definitely after I return.

  16. Lol awesome post. I grew up on the big island then lived on oahu working at a restaurant in waikiki while I was in college. It’s amazing that people really do say the weirdest things and have strange expectations…like “It rains in Hawaii? How is that possible?!” …ummm how else do you think the plants grow and are so green….. or the awkward stuff like “I know that you’re not from Hawaii because you speak good English”….really people? I don’t even want to get into how many things are wrong with that statement…but of course…not everyone says weird stuff like that. 😛

  17. I’ve heard/seen many instances of the bad behavior you describe in our favorite getaway city: New Orleans. We’ve visited every year for the past 7 years and see some the worst tourist BS every time. My wife and I are true believers of Bourdain’s quote, so much so that we are often mistaken for locals in many of the places we’ve traveled to.

    Coincidentally, we won’t be able to go to NOLA this year because we are planning on going to Kaua’i!

    Great Post!

  18. Pingback: Be a Traveler, Not A Tourist? Should You Care? | Ladybugs in Wonderland·

  19. Sadly this is so true! I lived in Hawai’i for a year and I’ve seen this ‘trend’ as well. Tourists in the worst meaning of the word can be found anywhere, but you are right – it seems that Hawai’i attracts a disproportionate amount of them.

  20. Pingback: The Grateful Tourist « A Nomad's Musings·

  21. Reblogged this on movingblack and commented:
    When you want to visit new places, it’s not easy to be a tactful tourist. But the sooner you realise your holiday destination wasn’t actually created by God simply to amuse you, the sooner you will start to hear the heartbeat of the place.

  22. “Does the water go all the way around the island?” Un-Be-Lievable! I visited Kaua’i many years ago, on my honeymoon. I’ve yet to visit any place more beautiful. I truly enjoyed your post…

  23. “Does the water go all the way around the island?” had me laughing. Thanks for that and thank for sharing! <<>>

  24. Reblogged this on Tales of the Cheshire and commented:
    This accurately sums up my feeling on tourists and living on Kauai….It is a challenging relationship, at best. And, at worst a fledgling disaster. I like the comment from one of the readers “Be a traveler, not a tourist”

    • Glad it resonated! As long as we find humor in this trying dynamic, we will live to bear another day (in terms of Alaskan tourism, I hope I hit your punny bone ;)) Thanks for reading, Margret!

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