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The best ways to respect local culture in Hawaii

Recently updated on July 31st, 2023 at 02:52 pm

Hawaii is famed as the ultimate island holiday destination, with sugary beaches, rich culture and famously friendly people. But while Hawaii may be your dream vacation, it’s important to remember that Hawai‘i Nei (the Hawaiian Islands) is so much more for the locals. They share a deep spiritual connection with the land and Hawaiian culture is deeply entwined with respect for the land and people. It’s important to be aware of different Hawaiian traditions and customs before you go so you won’t accidentally make any cultural faux pas and have the best holiday possible while respecting this beautiful culture. From learning about hula to knowing where to surf, here is what you should know about Hawaiian culture before your trip.

Learn about lei etiquette


In Hawaiian culture, a lei is a ceremonial garland made with Hawaiian flowers to be worn on the top of the head or around the neck. It was traditionally used by Native Hawaiians, especially chiefs, to show their rank. Today, the lei is used for many things. You can give someone a lei during celebrations like birthdays and graduations to symbolise friendship or as a gift to welcome someone.

The first thing that many travellers experience after arriving in Hawaii is to have a lei strung around their neck. It’s a beautiful welcome and even if you don’t want to keep your lei on, you shouldn’t remove it until you’re in the privacy of your hotel room. It’s considered very rude to remove it before then, as the lei is specially made as a symbol of welcoming. Also, remember never to give a pregnant woman a closed lei, as this represents an umbilical cord wrapping around the child’s neck. You can ask the maker of the lei to keep it open-ended.


Be kind to others


The people of Hawaii always warmly welcome visitors and want you to experience the special culture of their beautiful land. In return, they ask visitors to arrive with an open mind and to learn from the locals of Hawaii. The first words you should learn (and the words you hear the most!) are “aloha” meaning “hello”, “goodbye” or “love”, and “mahalo” meaning “thank you”.

When you’re visiting Hawaii, make sure you use these words regularly and show kindness and respect to everyone. In Hawaii, everyone is part of one big happy family (seriously, there’s usually no more than one degree of separation between any two given locals as Hawaiian families are huge) and that means everyone should be treated with mutual courtesy and respect. 

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Respect Hula


Hula is a beautiful dance form and one of the most important Hawaiian traditions. Although you’ll often see Hula performed to entertain guests as Hawaiians love to share their culture with visitors, it’s so much more than a show. In Hawaiian culture, Hula is considered to be the voice of Hawaiian ancestral knowledge. It’s a complex and extremely sacred artform and a way for the people to connect with their land.

It takes a lot of rigorous training for the dancers to perform Hula. They are trained by highly respected kumu (teachers) who share the ancient wisdom from a long line of masters. Each movement tells a story or preserves historical events, and it takes a lot of technical skill and knowledge to perform Hula. You should never try to copy the dance or join without being invited. Instead, immerse yourself in this wonderful art and soak up the stories of Hawaii.


Remove your shoes


Whether you’re at your hotel or someone’s home, the first thing you should do before entering is take off your shoes. It’s an important Hawaiian custom that shows respect for the home owner and helps keep the home clean. Some homes may have indoor slippers or you can just go barefoot.

Don’t take anything – but photos


While it may be tempting to bring home a souvenir from Hawaii, you should never take anything from the land. Nature is considered sacred here and you should never move or take anything like lava rocks, flowers, or rocks or sand from the beach. All natural things are said to contain mana (energy or life force) and if you take them, local superstition says you will be cursed. It also disturbs the delicate ecosystem, so it’s best to leave them where you found them.

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Remember malama ka ‘aina i ke kai


The Hawaiian tradition of Malama ka ‘aina i ke kai (take care of the land and ocean) represents the deep connection Hawaiians have to the land. Their islands provides shelter, food and sustainability and they have a duty (kuleana) to care for it in return, so future generations can thrive off the earth’s natural resources. This core value drives many of Hawaii’s farmers, fishermen and conservationists, and you’ll even get to meet some local farmers on Trafalgar’s Hawaii trips to learn more about this ethos.

It’s especially important when visiting wahi pana (sacred sites). You should always look out for posted signs about sacred or off-limit sites. If you see the world “kapu”, meaning taboo, do not enter. These places are off-limits for a reason and there are some places not meant for you to explore. Another important tip is to never leave offerings at wahi pana unless you really know what you’re doing. Sometimes visitors leave rocks, leaves or other offerings that have no cultural importance, and doing so is actually a desecration of the site, despite the intentions. 

In short, Hawaii is a stunning land and an amazing place for a holiday. But visitors must always remember that we are only borrowing it for a short while from the people of Hawaii.

Watch the wildlife from a distance

sea turtle swimming among coral Hawaiian culture

Hawaii is filled with incredible wildlife, especially in the oceans. If you’re lucky enough to spot creatures like turtles or sharks, you should only marvel at them from a distance. It’s never okay to disturb the wildlife, no matter where you are. You can also respect the wildlife and the land by avoiding littering, using reef-safe sunscreen, and picking up any litter on the beach. It’s all about malama ka ‘aina!

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Ask when and where to surf


One of the best things to do in Hawaii is go surfing! Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, there are plenty of amazing beaches and excellent surf. But you should always be respectful of the locals if you decide to hit the waves. Before you dive in, ask the locals for the best places for a visitor to surf. When you’re waiting for a wave, let others go first instead of grabbing the first wave for yourself. You should always keep an eye out for hazards like hidden rip currents and rocks, and only swim or surf when there are lifeguards on duty.

Hike responsibly


Hiking is another spectacular activity to do in Hawaii, but you should always do it in the safest and most respectful way. Before you head out, make sure you’re taking an appropriate trail and be prepared for all conditions as the weather can change rapidly. Bring snacks, water and suitable footwear, plus a small first-aid kit. Always stick to the marked trails so you don’t cause harm to yourself or the nature around you!


Use the correct terms


If you’re from California, you might call yourself Californian. If you’re from New York, you might say you’re a New Yorker. But it’s not the same in Hawaiian culture. The term “Hawaiian” is used only for people who are of Native Hawaiian descent. If you’re not sure if someone is a Native Hawaiian or not, use the world “local” and they’ll know what you mean. 

Hawaii’s population is incredibly diverse, with immigrants from Japan, China, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and more who are collectively referred to as “locals”. This incredible cultural melting pot has also produced some unique customs, including their language. Many people speak a creole language known as Hawaiian Pidgin English, created when immigrants and Hawaiians needed a common language to communicate with each other. It’s made up of a mixture of different languages and can sound like broken English to new visitors. Unless you’re fluent in Hawaiian Pidgin English, you should never attempt to speak it as it can be seen as mockery.

Tip well


It’s customary in Hawaii to tip 20% for meals, massages and activities. Many people work for minimum wage here and rely on tips to get by, so you should always tip well, especially if you’ve received a good service. Visitors should also be aware that the pace of life is different in Hawaii to mainland USA. People in Hawaii are more laidback, so you should not expect the same service as you get on the mainland. It’s better to just go with the flow in Hawaii!

RELATED CONTENT: Five Tasty Local Dishes You Must Try When Visiting Hawaii

Stay humble


In Hawaii, a person is deemed more worthy based on their humility, rather than their finances or connections. Avoid wearing flashy clothes or jewellery, bragging or name-dropping in Hawaii, as this will be seen as arrogance and not looked upon favourably.

Always ask questions and permission


The best way to respect the Hawaiian culture is to ask! If you’re not sure about anything, such as where to go or what to wear, you can never go wrong by asking a local. Your Trafalgar Travel Director is always happy to answer any questions and can always point you in the right direction.

Also, asking permission to enter a place is very important in Hawaiian culture, as it means you’re not assuming. Overall, this is a great way to spend your time in Hawaii – not assuming and opening yourself to learning about the beauty around you.

Are you dreaming of a trip to Hawaii? Let us know in the comments below!

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