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People With Leprosy Were Exiled There—Should It Be a Tourist Destination?

(Source: theatlantic.com)

Leprosy colonies, places where those who contracted the disease were isolated, were widespread during the Middle Ages, but they continued to crop up long after that—including a facility near Baton Rouge that was closed in the late 1990s. Steve Reder of the Infectious Disease Research Institute told The Atlantic in 2012 that isolated leprosy hospitals still exist. As tends to happen with disease outbreaks, including the recent Ebola epidemic, the ostracizing and hysteria surrounding leprosy were disproportionately directed at non-whites and other marginalized groups.

Kalaupapa remains eerily sheltered from the rest of the world even today. A common subject of small talk in the village is the one day each year that a barge lands with supplies, including gas and food, when the water is calm enough for it to dock. But Kalaupapa is as breathtaking as it is haunting, marked by white-sand beaches, coral reefs, and tiny bungalows that look as if they’re frozen in time. It is, in some ways, a version of the Hawaii that was—pre-Waikiki, pre-World War II, pre-Five-0.

Many of Kalaupapa’s memories are happy. Patients fell in love with and married each other; nearly 1,000 couples wed there between 1900 and 1930 alone, according to records compiled by the Kalaupapa Names Project. There were dances and musical performances, lei-making contests and softball games. Churches were popular gathering places, including one built by Father Damien, a canonized saint who contracted leprosy while living in Kalaupapa in the late 1800s. For many exiles, the Kalaupapa community—fellow patients, healthcare workers, clergy people—became their only family. Leaving the peninsula would become its own form of exile.

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After conducting an environmental impact statement and hosting a public-comment series, the National Park Service formulated its four alternative plans for Kalaupapa’s future, two of which would open up visitation in accordance with specific goals and policies and one of which would implement zero changes. The federal agency explicitly prefers the alternative that would essentially establish a form of ecotourism: “Kalaupapa’s diverse resources would be managed from mauka to makai (mountain top to the coast line) to protect and maintain their character and historical significance,” the plan reads. “Visitation by the general public would be supported, provided, and integrated into park management.”

The park’s superintendent has said the intention is to retain “the sense of place and the feeling we have now” and emphasizes that little would change. Its people, she said, are the priority, as is its natural environment.

Still, it’s easy to see why the issue is so fraught. Some are concerned that an influx of outsiders, particularly those who aren’t sensitive to or familiar with Kalaupapa’s past, would deteriorate the peninsula’s spiritual ambience and undermine its historical legacy. Others worry about the risk this poses to the native flora and fauna, almost all of which are found no where else on the planet. After all, Kalaupapa is one of the last few truly untouched places in Hawaii, the world’s most isolated archipelago and the home of a third of America’s endangered species. Hawaiian politics are at play, too: Kalaupapa was home to Native Hawaiian populations for hundreds of years before the colony was established. Many stakeholders have criticized the historic failure to recognize that legacy and ensure Native Hawaiians special access rights to the land.

More Info: theatlantic.com

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