As awful as this pandemic year (and a half) has been, one thing I won’t take for granted is that, due to my relative economic privilege, I have at least been able to travel a lot. For reasons of COVID safety, all of this travel has been strictly domestic, and for the first summer, it was also strictly road travel. What better way to really see the incredibly diverse landscape of the United States? Since this time last year, in addition to visiting friends and family on both coasts, I have also been to eight national parks: Zion, Bryce, Pinnacles, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Glacier, Denali, and Kenai Fjords.
These were all wonderful experiences. I’m so glad that our country has guaranteed vast swaths of land to remain conserved for recreation and public enjoyment, instead of endlessly exploiting and developing it. But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the national parks, land use, and the historical context of present-day tourism. The first time this occurred to me was last August, when my ex and I made plans to visit Zion and Bryce.
Zion has always had a reputation for being quite crowded with visitors, but during the summer of 2020, it was fully overwhelmed. People came from all over the United States because international travel was prohibited, and the park simply couldn’t handle the crush. It instituted strict ticketing and lottery systems to try to control the flood of visitors, which made it tricky for us to do everything on our itinerary. But we were successful and had a wonderful time.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021, and the issue of overcrowding at parks was once more made manifestly clear. Last week, I flew to Alaska to visit Denali and Kenai Fjords with friends, and a week before that, I was in Montana to visit Glacier National Park with my parents.
As anyone might guess, 2021 was even worse for park overcrowding than 2020. In 2020 COVID-conscious Americans were still more or less willing to cancel vacations altogether and hunker down at home. By 2021, with many people vaccinated and restless, but maybe still unwilling to travel abroad, the crowds at national parks and other domestic vacation destinations reached several breaking points. The parks and the tiny towns that border them couldn’t sustain such high levels of tourists. I heard again and again from service workers in Denali and Seward that they had extreme staffing shortages. During the worst of the pandemic, thousands of service workers got burnt out and quit. Their work carried a huge health risk, and restless, anxious customers made their lives hell. It goes without saying that many service workers also contracted COVID-19 and died, which may have contributed to the shortage.
And so there weren’t enough staffers to keep many facilities open at Glacier, not enough drivers to drive the transit buses at Denali, not enough rangers to deal with the number of visitors at each park. The number of guests who could enter the most popular destinations per day was strictly limited. At Glacier, everyone wants to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but only 400 tickets were released each day, and they sold out online in seconds. At Denali, the only road open to private vehicles was cut short at the 15-mile marker; past that, guests had to purchase a ticket for a transit bus, and those also sold out on most mornings.
And that’s just within the parks. In the town around Denali, mom and pop restaurants and inns shuttered or severely curtailed their businesses halfway through the summer season due to staffing shortages. Only the big resorts (owned by Disney) were able to move staff from other parts of the country to the middle of rural Alaska to keep their doors open and businesses running smoothly. My friend and I ended up eating dinner at the same resort restaurant three nights in a row, for lack of other options. We quickly learned that there’s no longer any such thing as call-ahead reservations at any restaurant in Alaska: you have to go in person, as early as possible, and deal with absurd wait times.
Let me be very clear that I’m not trying to complain about the state of affairs in the rural areas I visited. I knew what I was getting into, and I don’t think any lesser of the national park system or their surrounding towns for these less-than-ideal circumstances. Much of the country and the world continues to struggle to survive a deadly virus, and it would be very callous of me to gripe about restaurant wait times in this context. Rather, I’m only pointing out that the parks are clearly under-resourced and particularly ill-equipped to handle recent large waves of tourism due to the pandemic. Which brings me to my main point: obviously the parks need more resources (in terms of funding and staffers), but maybe they also need fewer visitors.
The national parks have always been advertised as America’s treasure, or our country’s best idea. Unfortunately, we fall into a Catch-22 if the advertising works too well: allow unfettered access to the parks, and the massive crowds will ruin the experience for everyone, not to mention the impact on the environment itself; but restrict access, and people will not have the opportunity to be enriched and educated about why nature is so important in the first place. Actually, I don’t know if it’s a Catch-22 or just a lose-lose situation.
A good example of the lose-lose is the case of Hawai’i’s national parks, including Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island and Hale’akalā National Park on the island of Oahu. Actually, no, this point really stands for the entire state and colonized former sovereign nation. You see, Hawai’i has had a really tough time during the pandemic. In 2020, tourism dried up, and while the island was able to keep COVID out for the most part, the economy tanked. Then, in 2021, tourism came crashing upwards like a tsunami, and everything else besides the economy suffered.
The island of Oahu is experiencing a climate change-induced drought, and the glut of tourists using tons of water on the island resorts is not helping. When a local ordinance was created in June to restrict water usage for upcountry residents, the locals complained that their needs were being overlooked in favor of maintaining the status quo of a “tropical paradise” for visitors who were straining the island’s resources.
Just a few months later, Hawai’i declared that it was seeing a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases, due mainly to the Delta variant, which was, of course, brought into the archipelago from outside. Despite all the vaccinations and mask mandates, Delta still got through. And who has to deal with the fallout? Not the tourists, that’s for sure.
Some Hawaiian activists, and now even their politicians, have been really pushing hard to get tourists to stop coming to Hawai’i, but who’s going to listen to them? Just like Denali, Yosemite, or Zion, everyone in the country has been itching to go somewhere, anywhere, and Hawai’i has always been painted as a nearby, convenient paradise. It’s become an ugly, embarrassing cliché: Americans think of Hawai’i as our own backyard third-world country, dependent on wealthy outsiders to keep the local economy churning. And that kind of mindset is absolutely insulting.
Hawai’i was a sovereign nation; it used to be independent and self-sufficient. When it was forcibly annexed by the United States, American capitalists saw a land to be exploited for agriculture and a strategic military base. Tourism followed not far behind. And today, Hawai’i is dependent on tourism, but it doesn’t have to be.
Many Native Hawaiians, the people whose ancestors watched their land become manipulated beyond recognition, would prefer all the tourists to leave, to stop using all the water, to stop polluting the beaches, to stop ruining backcountry roads, to stop bringing in COVID-19, to stop indulging in neo-colonialist fantasies. But the way things stand now, if the state took a leaf out of Australia’s book and banned all inbound air travel until COVID-19 were under control (which seems now unlikely ever to happen), then a lot of people (including Native Hawaiians) would suffer before the economy found balance again.
To those who want to argue, “But Hawai’i needs tourists to keep functioning”: consider that the state could conceivably restructure its economy so as to be less dependent on tourism, if only the endless stream of tourists could let up long enough for those changes to take place.
I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about the impact that non-indigenous people have had on the lives, histories, and present-day realities of indigenous people. In history, it’s pretty easy to observe how White people exploited and screwed over indigenous nations again and again. They broke treaties and carved up ancestral land, stole artifacts and suppressed indigenous languages and cultures.
But in the present day, any non-indigenous person, including non-indigenous Asian Americans and African Americans, can be complicit in the continued exploitation of land and people under neoliberalism. We may not be conquistadores or Crusaders, but we are certainly part of the settler colonialist legacy, whether we like it or not. My individual actions or inactions didn’t create a system that exploits people and land, but I certainly continue to profit from it. I could travel to Hawai’i while asymptomatically infected with COVID, have a great time, and seed the idea for a dozen others to make the same trip. I wouldn’t ever have to think about the potential impacts of my “harmless” vacation. But the people who live there do.
All I can think about these days with respect to Hawai’i is how many of my friends have visited this summer – for weddings, or just for fun, or for temporary relocation because of flexible work arrangements – and how I can’t reconcile that with the messages I kept seeing all summer from radical Native Hawaiian activists and government officials alike: stop coming, change your vacation plans, prioritize indigenous needs, please stop coming to Hawai’i.
How could I blame my friends? They’re all vaccinated and scrupulously follow COVID safety protocols. None of them were breaking any government mandates, and they’re all super conscious of the optics of travel during a pandemic. (They probably even planned “regenerative vacations”, which are without a doubt a flaming beacon of late-stage capitalism.) But… I don’t know. I’m not an ethicist or philosopher by any means, and there’s just too much to weigh here: what counts as socially acceptable behavior; what do we do when the legal and ethical courses of action are at odds; who determines what is ethical in the first place; how important are an individual’s actions in the grand scheme of things… And what do we owe each other?
So anyway, going back to Alaska and Montana, when I first realized my friends were all flying to Hawai’i, and when I also learned that my parents are thinking of going later this summer (I’m trying my best to persuade them not to), I had to sit down for a bit and think about my own year of travels.
Glacier National Park is on traditional (and forcibly ceded) Blackfeet land. Zion is on Paiute land. Yosemite is on Ahwahnechee land. Denali is on Athabaskan land. Kenai is on Sugpiaq land. There were indigenous people living in these places long before White settler colonizers, and there are still indigenous people living here, who have a special connection to the land. And that land was taken away from them, too, and turned into American settlements, American states, and American national parks.
While I haven’t heard the same kind of anti-tourism messaging from Alaska Native activists that I’ve heard form Native Hawaiians (probably partially because the COVID-19 situation in Alaska is not presently as severe as it is in Hawai’i, among other reasons), it remains true that Alaska and its parks are a product of American imperialism, too. And insofar as its economy is partly built on tourism, then I, as a tourist, am participating (however unwillingly) in the exploitation of indigenous land for non-indigenous benefit.
I was thinking about all of this literally while hiking in one of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve ever laid eyes on. All of my travel is solely for my own pleasure. Why Alaska? Why did I want to walk on a glacier? Am I just heeding some abstract notion of “adventure” without deeply understanding the social construction of “wilderness” and its neo-colonial undertones? What am I contributing by being here? Where is my money going?
Matanuska Glacier, which is two hours north of Anchorage, is a stunning landmark. You can hike right on the glacier itself and watch freshwater waterfalls carve out deep crevasses in ice that is thousands of years old. But you can’t get to the glacier without buying a pricey ticket for a guided tour, because most of the land around the glacier is privately owned – and not by Alaska Native citizens. It’s the consequence of a white guy who saw an opportunity decades ago, back when Alaska was “unclaimed” and allowed “homesteaders” to buy up massive amounts of land, and continues to profit off it today. That’s where my money went, not toward reparations for various crimes committed against Alaska Natives by my government.
(NB: the full and ongoing story of Matanuska Glacier is, of course, way more complicated than what I just wrote; the articles I’ve linked to tell a more interesting story!)
So, at the end of all this, I feel like I’m wallowing in something that sounds a lot like White guilt, and I’m not really sure what to do about it. At the very least, I’m continuing to educate myself on the history and present-day realities of indigenous people in North America. (One recommendation is This Land, a podcast about indigenous history and the legal system, which just released Season 2. Another is David Treuer’s excellent Atlantic article on indigenous sovereignty and national park ownership.)
I can also make a little bit of a ruckus in my social circles and help other people heed indigenous voices and consider indigenous needs. And I imagine that part of the solution relies on individual responsibility. I ought to consciously place indigenous people and culture at the center of any vacation that I plan that ostensibly focuses on “nature” or “wilderness adventure”, and to remember that there is no such thing as “untouched” land in the North American context. When I travel, I must respect the local indigenous culture, and not consider it like a mere museum exhibit or an afterthought. I should not treat any land like a playground, or act like I have a right to do whatever I want, whenever I want, in the spaces that are not my ancestral home. And, most importantly, in some cases, I have to simply cancel my plans to visit a place when the local and indigenous caretakers request it, no matter how long I’ve been dreaming or planning.
But to truly become an accomplice in the radical movement to decolonize is something I guess I can admit I’m not yet equipped for. Is it possible to enjoy the grandeur of this land in a way that authentically honors the people who took care of it for thousands of years, and does not just resist, but effectively dismantles, the capitalistic pull to erase and to exploit? I don’t know, but I’m open to learn.
Word of the Day: coir is the fiber taken from the husk of a coconut, which can be used for weaving. It comes from Malayalam (Dravidian) kayar (കയർ) “cord,” from kayaru “to be twisted.” It is pronounced /ˈkɔɪər/ (rhymes with “employer”).