I push through a moving wall of sunburned shoulders on Kalakaua Avenue. People hand me flyers for a gun-firing range and why I need to reject the Chinese Communist Party. Parrots squawk. A girl with a guitar turns up her amp to compete with the breakdancing group nearby. A guy on a motorcycle zooms down the street, balancing on his back wheel. I smell weed.
And it’s Tuesday.
I’ve spent decades roaming around Waikiki, cutting school to watch movies at the old Waikiki Theater 3 with its balcony seating and cinema organ — now a California Pizza Kitchen — and surfing the breaks along this sunny coastline.
I met my husband here, spent anniversaries and birthdays here, went to proms here, surfed with legends, picnicked under fireworks, watched meteor showers. My 5-year-old son caught his first wave at Baby Queens. Waikiki is a special place to me.
But now it feels, well, different.
I spent Tuesday afternoon, wandering the neighborhood, seeing if my favorite restaurants and shops were still open. (Henry’s Place yes, Waikiki Yokocho no.) I expected a lot of visitors — the state reported 818,268 visitors came to Hawaii in April, a 96.3% recovery from April 2019 and the highest recovery rate since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — but I wasn’t prepared for the packed sidewalks, the noise, the intensity.
By 6 pm Kalakaua Avenue was bustling with street performers — breakdancing groups, guitar-slinging singers, a hack Elvis impersonator, a magician, an inordinate number of caricature artists, even a guy who claims his bunny could do tricks for tips.
People stood in long lines to get coffee and shave ice. Souped-up cars pounded music as they cruised down the street. A hodgepodge of music blared from every direction. Homeless regulars staked their usual spots.
It almost gave me a panic attack.
I quickly ducked into Macy’s — my safe space — lulled by the nondescript, inoffensive music and ice-cold air conditioning. As I meandered around the cosmetic counters, I realized something: The store was empty.
“Man, it’s crazy out there,” I said to one of the smartly dressed saleswomen at the Clinique counter.
“Yes, so many people,” she answered, “but they don’t come in here. They don’t buy anything. They just walk around.”
So these visitors want to be out there? And not in here, where it’s quiet and calm and peaceful? They actually like the chaos?
It seemed implausible.
The streets of Waikiki aren’t the type of a vacation experience I would want. It was noisy, crowded and stressful. I walked nearly two miles in one direction and was already considering jumping on a Biki and biking out of there.
When I think of a vacation — and I had just returned from a laid-back weekend on Kauai with my family — I want to relax, to unwind. I want to smell the salty air — not vape smoke — and lounge on a beach where I can’t hear the conversation of seven separate groups of people sitting uncomfortably close to me.
Clearly, travelers want different things.
But the way our state has marketed the islands seems to clash with what visitors arrive to, at least on Oahu, where the bulk of first-timers stop.
I watched a gorgeous video by the Hawaii Tourism Authority that promotes Hawaii with an important message: These islands are home to us, and it’s everyone’s kuleana (privilege, responsibility) to care for them.
“There is no place like Hawaii, home to unimaginable beauty found nowhere else in the world.” The video shows the breathtaking cliffs of the Napali Coast on Kauai, a lush trail through Iao Valley on Maui and an empty golden beach somewhere in Hawaii.
HTA’s message was definitely on point, critical in our pandemic existence, and one I fully support. But what is the image of Hawaii travelers are hoping to find—and are we living up to that expectation?
I tried to imagine myself as a first-time visitor, guided by a Pinterest board of pins that showed pristine beaches, uncrowded hiking trails and cocktails at sunset. Then I arrive in Waikiki — to the crowds, the noise, the yelling, the sirens, the lines. I may not leave my hotel room.
There’s still a lot of beauty in Waikiki — the varying blues of the ocean, the long stretches of sandy beach, the perpetual sunshine — but it’s been overrun by things that don’t feel very Hawaii at all.
And yet, they come, they walk along Kalakaua, they stop to watch the dancers and musicians, they sit for caricatures, they even tip the bunny. (I still don’t know what that rabbit does.)
Maybe we’re giving travelers what they want, after all.