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Commentary: If We Want to Be Welcomed, We’ve Got to Be Better Guests

The fight between triathletes and locals isn’t going away. But there shouldn’t even be a fight in the first place.

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A month ago, I cashed in some travel rewards to fly out to Hawaii. I wanted to see what Kona was like without the spectacle of the Ironman World Championship race, so I rented a cute little condo off Ali’i Drive for the weeks leading up to the big event. Upon my arrival, someone asked what brought me to the Big Island, and when I told him, the expression on his face went from pleasant to annoyed.

“Had I known you were here for Ironman,” he said, “I’d have charged you more.”

This conversation repeated itself in restaurants and checkout lines several times with the same outcome: once I divulged I was a triathlete, the tone would change. After about a week of this, I started to lie, telling people I was a travel nurse. People here are much nicer to travel nurses.

I wish I didn’t have to do this. I’m proud of being a triathlete, and I love this community of ours. That’s why it’s so hard to hear that some people think so poorly of us. When it comes to covering a race like Kona, I want the main story to be the amazing feats of endurance we see on the course, not the drama playing out in the background.

Anyone who has been following the lead-up to this year’s Ironman World Championship event is familiar with the high tension between locals and visiting triathletes this year. This isn’t a new phenomenon – each year, a growing number of Hawaiians have expressed disdain for the tourism industry. But in Kona, Ironman visitors bring an entirely new type of visitor – one who impacts the area in a much different way than honeymooners or cruise-ship visitors.

Yes, it’s true that Ironman brings a tremendous economic impact to the island: $30 million in 2019, and much more expected in 2022. But it’s also true that many people who live on the island don’t see the direct results of that infusion. Restaurants make more money, but servers do not – as one Kona waitress told me, triathletes have a reputation for leaving small tips, if they even tip at all. When the roads close on race day, so do small businesses. A local hairstylist who has to shut down for a day will lose $600 in income – this year, with two days of racing, the loss doubles. Visiting triathletes don’t usually get their hair cut on the island, so there’s no opportunity to make up that income.

“But the locals are price-gouging on rentals!” You might be saying as a counterpoint. Yes, that’s also a truth in this saga. Accommodation costs during race week are two to three times more expensive than in 2019. Here’s the thing that might surprise you, though: Most locals are pretty pissed off about that, too. The exorbitant cost of vacation rentals isn’t just inconveniencing triathletes – it’s driving up housing costs in the already-expensive Hawaiian market. People who have lived here their whole lives on modest incomes are suddenly finding it difficult to find affordable housing, thanks to wealthy non-resident buyers who are snatching up properties for vacation rentals. It’s gotten so bad, some cities are enacting bans on short-term rentals. When it comes to anger about price-gouging, locals and triathletes are actually on the same team.

But the biggest reason some Kona locals are losing their aloha spirit for Ironman is the perception that every year, visiting triathletes act more and more like seagulls: they swoop in, crap all over the place, and leave. They didn’t mind triathletes so much when we just rode in the bike lane, but now we’re everywhere, riding on roads that are not bike-friendly or rolling through stop signs. We leave empty gel packets and spent tubes on the side of the road. We take bathroom breaks in people’s bushes. We wear banned sunscreens that are harmful to coral reefs and contribute to tourist practices that are desecrating sacred lands. And it really, really angers them to see triathletes trying to get closer to their beloved dolphins and sea turtles while swimming from Dig Me Beach. (Not only is this harmful to the animals, it’s illegal.)

And to top it all off, triathletes have the audacity to say locals should be grateful for our tourism dollars. If someone pissed in your front yard and told you to be thankful for it, you’d probably be upset, too.

Of course, not all triathletes are committing these acts. In fact, most triathletes aren’t. But none of us should be behaving this way.

Kona isn’t the only place where the locals have voiced these issues with visiting triathletes. We’ve seen this play out in multiple host cities, from Pemberton to Lake Placid. While the majority of people like hosting triathlon events and what our races can do for their community, they also wish triathletes would behave themselves just a little bit better.

Of course, not all triathletes are committing these acts. In fact, most triathletes aren’t. But none of us should be behaving this way. Kona is seen as one of the most important places in the world for triathletes, yet some of us fail to treat it that way. The responsibility is not solely on locals to be grateful, but for us to act like the visitors we are. We all need to make an effort to treat our host cities well. That means following certain common-sense guidelines, like those outlined in a recent letter from Kona triathletes. These include:

  • Following traffic rules
  • Respecting the environment by not littering, interfering with wildlife, or going off-trail
  • Patronizing small businesses whenever possible
  • Showing patience at busy restaurants or shops
  • Taking the time to learn about the culture and community you are visiting, including tipping practices and guidelines for tourists

I say this with absolute love for every one of my fellow triathletes: If we want locals to be happy we’re here, we have to give them a reason to be happy. So whether you’re visiting Kona for the Ironman World Championships or flying somewhere for a race-cation, be kind, tip well, and don’t litter. Remember – you’re not just representing yourself, but all triathletes everywhere. We know better. Now let’s do better.

Can’t get enough Ironman World Championship coverage? Visit our Kona Hub for news, analysis, history, photo galleries, and so much more – new stories added daily from our team on the ground at the Big Island.