Many millions of people the world over, who have never visited the islands, have a clear perception of Hawaii. The image of a ‘tropical South Pacific paradise’, exotic but safe, was largely created by the American media – particularly the Hollywood film industry in the 1930s. This image has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry and attracted over 6 million visitors a year to the islands at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Hawaii’s location in the mid-Pacific sets it apart as a destination from the rest of the United States, but its popularity is mainly due to the American connection.
Hawaii consists of a chain of volcanic islands that originated as a geological hot spot in the ocean floor of the North Pacific – in fact the state takes its name from the largest of these islands. Hawaii is geographically isolated – 4000 kilometres from the North American mainland but an even greater distance from Asia and the rest of Polynesia. The islands were first settled by Polynesians from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands between 500 and 800 AD. However, it was not until 1795, shortly after Captain Cook’s arrival, that the various tribes were united by Kamehameha the Great, founder of the Hawaiian monarchy. In the course of the nineteenth century, Hawaii came increasingly under American influence through the activities of whalers, missionaries and traders, some of whom became plantation owners after acquiring tribal lands. Labour was imported from China, Japan and other countries to work the plantations, eventually resulting in the multi-racial society that now characterizes the islands. These developments had a number of environmental and social impacts:
_ Most of the native plants and animals, which had previously been protected by isolation, were displaced by introduced species, and are now found only in remote mountain areas.
_ The native Hawaiians became a marginalized minority in their own country, with their traditional culture in danger of disappearing.