Mommy Needs A Mai Tai

Last Updated on April 4, 2024 by Florabeth Coble

A silhouette of a mom playing with her kid on the beach in Hawaii at sunset.

If you are visiting Hawaii soon and curious about how to be a respectful tourist, you’ve come to the right place!

Any Hawaii resident can paint a picture for you of the unaware tourist: sunburned, drunk, and wholly unconcerned about how their decisions affect the land and people of Hawaii. You don’t want to be that person. I don’t want you to be that person. And luckily, you don’t have to be.

I moved to Hawaii in 2016 and have learned many hard lessons along the way. Some gentle awareness on how to be a respectful tourist is highly appreciated by locals and will make your stay here much more enjoyable.

Here are five simple things you can do to travel responsibly in Hawaii.

A boy picking strawberries at a farm on Maui, Hawaii.


It’s not easy to work and make a living in Hawaii. Paradise comes with an expensive price tag and, more often than not, multiple jobs to keep your head above water. 

Shopping small can make a big difference in someone’s life. 

Sure, you might spend an extra buck purchasing something locally made instead of from a big box store. But by doing so, you are fortifying our community, supporting local factories and workers, and helping to put food on the table for people who live here and want to serve you.

Dining at local restaurants and purchasing locally grown foods is an easy place to start. Why buy a banana flown in from thousands of miles when you can purchase an even tastier one from down the street? Hawaii’s farmer’s markets are bountiful and can make for a fun opportunity to taste new flavors and get a real feel for the community.

Ask questions, be willing to try something new, and tip well.

A salad in a compostable container.


At the end of your stay, your family boards a plane, but all of the waste produced here does not. Three hundred thousand pieces of single-use plastic are used in a standard 200-room hotel every month, and all of that garbage on a tiny island has to go somewhere. 

Hawaii’s recycling system is basically non-existent. We don’t generate enough waste to fund the operations of a full facility, meaning that all of the trash made here is either shipped off to be recycled somewhere else, buried, or burned. It’s bleak.

It is estimated that at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Participating in a beach cleanup is a great way to make your family part of the solution.

Many are busy reimagining a better system, and policymakers are starting to take action. Hawaii was the first to ban plastic bags and has since added styrofoam. Shoutout to Marriott and Hyatt for being the first hotels to phase out plastic bottles!

Be mindful of what and how much you purchase, especially single-use plastics. While visiting parks and beaches, don’t leave any of your trash behind. Please bring a reusable water bottle and try to leave paradise even better than you found it.


A mom applying sunscreen to a baby on the beach in Hawaii.


If you’ve ever snorkeled or dived in Hawaii, I don’t have to tell you how special it is to be up close and personal with a coral reef. But they’re not just for show. Healthy coral reefs support 25 percent of all marine life and benefit humans in many ways. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most threatened ecosystems in the world.

Touching or standing on the reef severely damages it in ways that cannot be undone. Remember this as you are snorkeling, as it can be tempting to stop and stand on the reef to rest your tired legs. 

In addition, it is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the ocean annually, causing many threats, including fish deformities and coral bleaching. Even if you’re just sunbathing, toxic chemicals can wash off your body, down the shower drain, and into the ocean.

Hawaii was also the first to ban sunscreens containing highly toxic chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate. So please check the ingredients on anything you bring from home. Little Hands Hawaii and Mama Kuleana are two of my favorite locally-made brands with high-quality products in plastic-free packaging.

The sun in Hawaii shows no mercy, and you obviously want to keep your family safe. An easy way to do this without slathering on gallons of sunscreen is to avoid the direct sun during Hawaii’s most potent hours: 10 am-2 pm. Protecting with UV-resistant clothing and rash guards is a convenient option, especially for children who don’t like being lathered up. (Do any of them?)


A turle laying on the beach in Hawaii.


You will likely encounter several new creatures while visiting the islands. Spotting humpback whales or giant sea turtles can feel like the experience of a lifetime. Trying to get close for photo ops can be tempting, but please do your best to keep a distance and remind your kids to do the same.

I cannot tell you how often I have encountered someone trying to high-five or “ride” a turtle. This is a surefire way to piss off locals and get yourself into some serious trouble. 

State officials do not take messing with wildlife lightly and will not hesitate to prosecute you for it, either. Hawaiian Monk seals are in so much danger of becoming extinct that touching one is a Class C felony and can cost you up to five years in prison and $50,000 in fines.

Another great way to help protect Hawaiian wildlife is using environmentally-friendly bug repellent. Lavender oil works great!

Native Hawaiians consider birds, fish, and even the land you are walking on to be an integral part of their heritage. So tread lightly and try to keep this in mind as you explore.

Rock stacking in Maui, Hawaii.


Visiting tropical places can make us abandon our inhibitions and forget that we are somewhere people live, work, and build a life. I have more than one memory of walking drunkenly down the middle of a road in my younger years, yelling, “SPRANG BREAK!” utterly unaware of my surroundings.

Because Hawaii is technically a part of the United States, it can be easy to think that the same unspoken rules that apply back home also apply here. However, in many ways, this is not the case. Hawaii was independent until 1898 when the US took over, and a strong desire to keep its unique identity remains. 

Take time to learn about the culture. Visiting places like the Bailey House Museum on Maui is a great way to understand this complex history and way of life.

Hawaii is not an amusement park. Respect posted signs, private property, and sacred areas. The word “Kapu” means “forbidden” and should be respected with due regard. Park in designated places, stay on marked trails, and do not tag sacred areas on social media. Please do not take rocks, sand, or anything living back home with you.

One of the most significant pieces of advice I have is to slow it wayyy down. “Island time” is real, and there’s a good chance that your nervous system did not get the memo. So take some deep breaths, do your best to let go of a strict agenda, and see what the day brings. The magic of Hawaii will always live in the present moment.


Living on a small island has made me much more aware that my actions also have a chain reaction, and I’m grateful for that. The small choices that we make every day have a much larger impact.

Hawaii is unique and can be hard to describe if you have never witnessed its majestic beauty or felt the spirit of aloha for yourself. It’s as if it has its very own heartbeat. And that heartbeat deserves to be honored, preserved, and handled with care.

Staying curious and keeping an open mind will serve you well here. So come with a desire to learn and see what unfolds! Hawaii has a lot to teach us if we listen hard enough.

Next Up: 21 Kid-Friendly Ways to Volunteer in Hawaii

Picture of Aloha, I'm Florabeth Coble

Aloha, I'm Florabeth Coble

Most people call me Flo. I'm a busy mama raising two young boys in Hawaii. We share our adventures, travel tips, itineraries, and honest reviews so that you can plan your own family-friendly trip to Hawaii.