Maui has been our treasured go to place for over thirty years. It’s hard to explain why. My wife and I each have reasons. Speaking for myself, there is no other place that makes my soul feel so much at home. I am fascinated by Hawaiian history, culture, music and language, although my language skills are sub-minimal. Yet I don’t want to live here full time; long visits are enough. There’s a point at which we seasonal visitors are no longer tourists, so hurrying up to do the things tourists are supposed to do has little appeal. It’s time to slow down, get centered. Not everyone buys that. Another seasonal visitor once asked me, “If you don’t play golf what on earth do you do?” We’re involved in a local parish; have seasonal and local friends; my wife is a professional artist connected with the local arts community; I love revisiting museums and historical sites; we take long morning walks; we go back to favorite spots up on the mountain; we’ve never tired of watching whales; we get lots of exercise and lots of rest; she paints; I write. We even like doing touristy things.
With that as background, I’ve been reflecting on tourism, and the differences between tourists and locals. The local population includes those born and raised here, as well as more recent arrivals who’ve become fully involved in the life of the community. It’s an odd mix of cultures and ethnicities, each maintaining their own identity while engaging in the ways of others. Although native Hawaiians are in the minority, it’s their history, culture and language that is a unifying force loosely binding Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Samoan, Tongan, Haole, and other ethnicities into the whole that is modern day Hawaii. True, there are full time haole (white) residents who remain isolated from that kind of multicultural immersion. They tend to live in conclaves sandwiched between tourist accommodations and the world of locals. Thankfully, there aren’t many of them. Maui is too expensive for the average mainland retiree to afford the comfort they desire.
With that as a brief background, it’s occurred to me to think of Maui as having a vibrant manufacturing industry driving its economy. Once upon a time it was sugar, pineapple, and cattle, but no longer. Now it’s the Fun Factory, and it’s enormous.
The Fun Factory is staffed by overlapping shifts of thousands of workers. Tourists are the raw product of the Fun Factory. Tired, anxious, full of expectation, and thrilled to be here, they’re fed into the Fun Factory where workers do what they can to manufacture a week or two of romantic Hawaiian adventure, churning out contented, homeward bound people who will have paid well for the experience. The Fun Factory itself is a combination of accommodations, entertainment, food, resort clothing and related goods, landscaping evoking the Hawaii of dreams, and, of course, time share presentations promising the opportunity of a lifetime. It requires an enormous army of workers to pull it off.
When each shift is over, workers head home to a Maui not often seen by tourists, or even seasonal visitors. Many are in neighborhoods remarkably like cookie cutter suburbs anywhere else. Many others are in cramped apartments, old shacks tucked into mountain valleys, rooms over shops, and homeless camps hidden mostly out of sight. There are also a few more traditional villages in “Up Country,” or along less frequently traveled shore side roads. Farmers markets, school activities, shopping centers, less expensive out of the way places to eat, and the beach are the things of daily life away from the factory. All beaches in Hawaii are public, but access to the best of them is often controlled by the Fun Factory. It must be allowed, but without much parking only a few can get in. That doesn’t keep workers from using every inch of road access beach for camping, birthday parties, family gatherings, and just hanging out.
A relatively small island with a large Fun Factory filled with a river of tourists arriving and departing, plus all its workers occupying the same piece of land in the middle of an ocean, two thousand miles from anywhere else, creates a special kind of community requiring all the same sorts of things any complex community requires: local government, utilities, roads, public transportation, medical services, parks and recreation, schools and colleges, public safety, arts and cultural organizations, service clubs, places of worship, and the incredible logistics needed to supply it. Moreover, while plantation days are long gone, there’s a thriving agricultural sector producing garden vegetables, livestock, flowers, and most everything else needed for daily life. It’s remarkable in every way. It’s an amazing place. We love it. The Fun Factory aside, there is something deeply spiritual about Maui, There’s a saying, something like “ka mana’o o ka’aina,” meaning the spirit of the land, which is alive, and has personality. It’s why adventuring into new places is often preceded by a chant asking permission to enter and promising to honor the spirit of the place. For me it has the familiar ring of ancient Celtic practices that still haunt our Episcopalian ways.
Of course there are hiccups. Not everyone gets along. Crime happens. Politics and issues of public policy can get messy. Not everyone likes the Fun Factory. Traffic can be a nightmare. Weather can easily disrupt all the hard Fun Factory work. Tourists can be disrespectful of local values. Officialdom runs with less formality and urgency than it does on the mainland, and well established relationships can be more important than strict adherence to regulations. None of it is more than hiccups in the long run. Or, as the old saying goes, Maui No Ka Oi: it’s part of a chant boasting that Maui is the best.