Raindrops pounded outside my sliding glass door as I opened YouTube on my laptop. The first video to catch my eye was a commonly known YouTuber’s video with the title “moving to hawaii at 19.” With my sister across the way, I quickly asked her to watch the video with me. Something about a well-known influencer moving to the place where we were born and raised was intriguing. So, naturally, we played it thinking, “Why would a 19 year-old influencer drop everything to move to Hawaiʻi?”
For people who weren’t locally grown on the islands, the question might rather be,“Who wouldn’t want to drop everything to move to a tropical island paradise?”
Well, the answer is actually not that simple.
The key to this complex answer is in the term influencer. For attention-seeking social media influencers, their world is whatever they make it to be. Through a large following, good humor, digital presence and persona, a social media influencer can make anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 each year for promoting products of any sort and posting content. The appeal of this job is clear, but it requires a certain amount of boasting in order to get the level of attention influencers work so hard to find. A successful influencer, take Kylie Jenner for example, creates content that brags about a lifestyle unavailable to the general public, as she sports designer brands, lives in big mansions and attends exclusive events. The untouchable experience is what draws people in and allows fans to peek into a life that is not their own.
Here’s where Hawaiʻi comes in. Because many influencers want to showcase an idealized version of their own lives, the search for good content is crucial. For social media influencers, the aesthetic of their posts and videos is critical in creating a consistent image of how their fans view them. For an influencer who promotes a tropical life with palm trees and monstera plants in every picture they post, any follower connects that aesthetic to that influencer. The influencer, then, does not simply promote the aesthetic; they want to become the aesthetic, embody it. For them, it is not enough to simply see the hula girl; they want to be her, coconut bra and all.
Herein lies the problem. This obsession with just the aesthetic of Hawaiʻi is degrading. As a product of the Hawaiian islands, I understand the depth of culture, history and pain that Hawaiʻi has. I am not of Native Hawaiian descent, but through friends, school and my local family, I have learned the spirit and sacredness of the islands over my lifetime and can only imagine the connection that Native Hawaiians have to this land. In fact, many Native Hawaiians are heavily involved in sustaining a strong culture and community as they continue to protest the United States government since Hawaiʻi’s illegal annexation in 1898.
Influencers who move to Hawaiʻi seem to ignore all of this history and culture. As influencers make their way to the islands, they showcase their ability to simply rent or stay at a gorgeous house and eat expensive food for weeks or months at a time. These images display a very unrealistic lifestyle for people who are foreign to the islands. Influencers make living in Hawaiʻi look easy when it isn’t for lots of residents. In fact, Hawaiʻi had the 13th highest rate of poverty in the country in 2019. People work extremely hard to make a living on the islands, as the minimum wage is set at $10.10 while the living wage is a whopping $15.39 for a single adult. And, the state has serious social issues like the failing public education system with one of the lowest rankings in the United States. But, if we are following the logic of the social media influencer, people outside of Hawaiʻi only want to see the highlights. I guess addressing social issues and advocating for their new home are against the influencer’s brand.
When influencers move to the islands purely for content, the richness of Hawaiʻi is compromised. When their intentions are to simply promote an image that is visually attractive to their followers, influencers have the audacity to reduce a whole history, culture and people so that it conveniently fits their palm-tree island aesthetic. It could be worse, though. Influencers could be using Hawaiʻi as clickbait — oh wait, they are doing that, too.
What influencers who move to Hawaiʻi don’t realize is that they are causing more harm than good. Due to the rise in social media users and influencer marketing, the impact influencers have over their followers is only increasing. More specifically, if they continue to display Hawaiʻi in such a way that promotes only an aesthetic or a playground lifestyle, more people and tourists will begin to view the islands in the same way. And, even though Hawaiʻi has always been degraded to hula girls in grass skirts and the luau image, the social media influencer promotes this shallow tourism in a more subtly degrading way. These influencers further perpetuate an image of Hawaiʻi as a submissive landscape built to accommodate the fantasies of people on the outside looking in.
Some people might argue that any type of tourism is good for Hawaiʻi. Those people are right… sort of. Tourism accounts for 23 percent of Hawaiʻi’s economy, which means that about a third of Hawaiʻi’s population relies on the industry for jobs, housing and food. But, the average tourism hospitality worker gets paid an average of $28,272 each year which is a fraction of what it takes to live comfortably a year in the islands — $122,000. Though the industry provides money and jobs for the state, its real worth is not for the local people of Hawaiʻi, but rather for the visitors –– or new residents –– they serve.
After Hawaiʻi’s financial losses from the pandemic, the state will, unfortunately, need to rely on tourism to make a comeback. But, this does not mean the exploitative attitudes and views of Hawaiʻi should continue. As many people begin to plan their COVID-conscious spring getaways and summer trips, visitors to the islands should be conscious of their travel and attitudes in Hawaiʻi. If you are planning to come to Hawaiʻi in the future, visit attractions that are not whitewashed by a century-old advertising technique. Instead, visit ʻIolani Palace or get your hands dirty at a loʻi patch. You need to understand that although Hawaiʻi is advertised like a tourist attraction, it is not Disneyland. This is where more than 1.4 million people call home. Hard-working people live here. Real people with real problems live here. It’s where I learned how to ride a bike, how to surf and how to make spam musubis with my grandma. This place is not anyone’s playground. This place is Hawaiʻi.