The summer traveling season is in full swing, and thousands of visitors are heading to Hawaii to enjoy some sunshine, warm, sandy beaches and the Hawaiian culture.
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Before you go, it’s important to familiarize yourself with some of the different customs and traditions practiced in the Hawaiian Islands, so you can avoid accidentally offending the locals while enjoying the best possible vacation in the 50th state!
ACCEPT AND WEAR THE LEI
In case you’re not aware, a lei is a string or garland of flowers that have been strung together like a long necklace. Lei are often given to visitors who are arriving in Hawaii, but they can also be placed around the neck and on the shoulders of those who are celebrating birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and as a token of best wishes and friendship.
If you receive a lei, never decline (unless allergic to the flowers of course). Accept the lei graciously and take it off when you’re in the privacy of your hotel room or Airbnb.
Be sure to know the words mahalo and aloha. They are built into the fabric of everyday life in the islands. Mahalo means thank you. Aloha has many different meanings, including hello, goodbye and love.
You’ll often hear these words spoken at restaurants, tourist venues, sightseeing spots, everywhere! Listen to the locals, get the pronunciation right, and add these words to your new Hawaiian vocabulary.
RESPECT THE ART OF HULA
Hula is a beautiful Hawaiian dance form that you may have seen before if you’ve attended a luau or hula competition.
But hula is a significant part of the Hawaiian tradition and culture. Therefore, it is very important that you are respectful of the art, and the hula dancers who train hard to perform what is considered a sacred act that connects dancers to their culture.
So don’t join in without first being invited and certainly don’t mock the dancers.
TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF
Always. Every time you enter someone’s home remember – take your shoes off. This tradition comes from Japan and is a demonstration of respect for your hosts to avoid tracking dirt and germs into their home.
CALL US LOCALS, NOT HAWAIIANS
People who live in New York call themselves New Yorkers. People who live in Hawaii call themselves locals, not Hawaiians.
The word “Hawaiian” is reserved exclusively for people of Native Hawaiian ancestry. When conversing with someone who grew up in Hawaii and you’re uncertain if they’re Native Hawaiian, simply refer to them as ‘local’.
LEAVE THE ROCKS ALONE
When visiting a volcanic site in Hawaii, the temptation may be strong to take a couple of lava rocks home as a souvenir. Don’t do it.
First, it is illegal to take anything from National Parks, and legend has it that Pele, the goddess of fire and volcano puts a curse on anyone who takes lava rocks from the islands.
HAWAII IS A STATE
Remember that Hawaii is the 50th state. So referring to the contiguous United States as “the states” may be offensive to some. It’s best to name the specific states.
Despite Hawaii’s unique culture, it is still part of the United States, and referring to the other states as “the states” may sound like you are leaving out the 50th state.
THEY’RE NEIGHBOR ISLANDS
The State of Hawaii consists of eight islands: Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Hawaii Island, Kahoolawe and Niihau. If you’re on one of the islands and are referring to remaining islands, please don’t call them outer islands. Some locals will be offended. Call the other islands neighbor islands or by their specific names.
LET THE WILDLIFE BE
If you happen to encounter any wildlife while enjoying Hawaii’s many pristine beaches, be aware that it is illegal to touch or harass green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals.
Green sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act and Hawaiian monk seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Act.
Please keep a respectful distance and don’t swim within 20 feet of them. Violators face penalties of imprisonment and/or hundreds of dollars in fines.
USE REEF-FRIENDLY SUNSCREEN
Hawaii’s delicate marine ecosystems and preserving them while enjoying the ocean is very important in the islands.
This includes protecting and preserving the vast network of live coral reefs. In fact, state law prohibits the sale and distribution of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are toxic to coral reefs and marine life.
Although the law doesn’t include penalties for violating the ban, please use reef-safe sunscreens if at all possible.