This is the way all Hawaii used to be-small, sleepy, populated mostly by native Hawaiians, But now, for better or for worse, comes tourism. Just in the nick of time, say some residents, to pull the island of Molokai out of financial depression caused by the loss of one of its two major pineapple plantations.

But, others argue, Molokai's salvation may turn out to be its eventual undoing. If the growth of the tourist industry isn't tightly controlled, the end result may be a concrete-and-steel jungle of hotels, condominiums, fastfood restaurants and rent-a-car agencies, they say.

And that would ruin Molokai, the opponents of tourism say, just as surely and swiftly as it ruined Oahu's Waikiki and Maui's Kihei.

The low-key debate goes on here, causing a certain unhappiness on a tight little island where, normally, life is uncomplicated and people are happy. But, then, these have been bothersome times for the people of Molokai.

Though Del Monte remains, Dole has closed its pineapple plantation, throwing several hundred out of work. An attempt to replace the declining plantation economy with small farmers has made only limited progress because native Hawaiians simply aren't much interested in farming.

And though all the tourist books call Molokai "the Friendly Island," the opening of the first big tourist hotel on Molokai's western tip and the boost it has given local employment haven't created all the good will that some might have hoped for.

A tourist was raped while backpacking. There were several teen-age boys involved and it was a shocking, unspeakable thing on an island of 5,000 population, where everyone knows one another and where crime rarely reaches beyond the level of a Saturday night drunk or a stolen chicken or pig.

An isolated event, to be sure, but it happened at a time when Molokai was experiencing its first hints of tourist industry backlash. There was a peaceful demonstration by several dozen Hawaiians in a parking lot at the new Sheraton-Molokai, protesting development. They carried signs saying, "Warning, Locals Only" and "No Tourists Allowed." The signs reappeared later, tacked to living-room walls, front doors and tree trunks. They were generally out of the way and few tourists saw them, but the thought lingered on.

The island's troubled economy, the rape, the anti-tourism movement-there's a pattern here that bothers some people.

Take Aka Hodkins, manager of the Molokai Ranch, which owns close to two-thirds of the island's usable land. "My folks grew up here and I grew up here and I was never taught racism," said Hodkins, who is Caucasian. "I can't believe...any Hawaiian grew up hating another person because he's black, yellow, white or whatever. But any kind of ethnic movement tends to stimulate a racist attitude."

Molokai is experiencing an ethnic movement of sorts in the form of a small group of people caled Hui Alaloa, whose leader, Walter Ritte Jr., organized the Sheraton protest. Ritte, a former student of mortuary science. and full-time activist, is not a racist. No one here-not Hodkins, not anyone-calls him that.

The worst thing they're saying about him is he that is confused-but charming and bright, they quickly add, as is his wife, a former Miss Hawaii. As for Ritte himself, he won't own up to being confused-just searching.

"I really love this island," he said. "I'm searching for the values of my ancestors. I don't look to Los Angeles for my values or as an example of the kind of place I want my island to become.

"I admit I have a one-track mind. My search for my identity as a Hawaiian and for Hawaiian culture is paramount. The economics of Molokai come second. I know we can live off the land and the ocean like our forefathers. Whether the pineapple industry lives or dies doesn't bother me. Our politicians have said to us that it's tourist development or unemployment. But they said that about Waikiki and Kihei, too, and you can see how ugly they've become."

The answer, Ritte said, is some sort of control on growth, limiting the number of hotels and condominiums that can be built on Molokai. Ritte detests the hotel, not a high rise as is often the case with major Hawaiian hotels but a low-slung collection of cabana-like buildings perched oceanside, 24 miles across the water from Honolulu's Waikiki.

"They've built a golf course there where I used to hunt," Ritte said. "They've destroyed the essence of what brings people to Molokai in the first place and, by doing so, have made it harder and harder for people here to practice the aloha spirit."

Almost by definition, Hodkins, the ranch manager, should be the mirror-opposite of Ritte. It was his company, after all, that sold 6,700 acres of land to a New Orleans-based real estate firm that in turn leased part of it to Sheraton for the hotel. But he isn't. Like Ritte, Hodkins is a native of Molokai, a man who loves the island and wouldn't want to raise his children anywhere else. Also, like Ritte, he worries about the land, the hunting and fishing.

"The quality of life I've been accustomed to has deteriorated some," Hodkins said. "But, I've been fortunate in the past-I've had access to lots of acres. But, until recently, Molokai Ranch was pretty much closed to the general public for hunting, fishing, hiking. Since it's been opened up, I've seen the fishing along the coast and the hunting here deteriorate because more people have access."

Hodkins argues that the quality of life for everyone-not just the island's elite-has improved in the past two or three years. There is, he says, better housing, better medical services and a more stable economy as Molokai makes the difficult transition from a plantation system.

"We used to have a paternal society here," he said. "The ranch leased land to the plantations, who in turn leased land to the worker tenants. The plantation supplied housing, electricity, water, the paycheck-basically, a man's whole life was wrapped up in the plantation.

"But that's changing. Now a man here is beginning to own his own house, work outside the plantation and pay his own bills." Hodkins and others suspect that this radical change of life style could not have happened as smoothly if it were not for Molokai's slowly growing tourist industry.

"The Sheraton definitely took up the employment slack," he said. The island has actually prospered instead of dying after Dole moved out. People who moved to Oahu or Maui came back to Molokai."

There's a definite feeling on the island that because Molokai is the last major island of the Hawaiian chain to experience the tourist influx, there's a good chance that growth can be kept under control.

A representative spokesman for that point of view is Louis Hao, an official of Maui County, of which Molokai is a part. He mirrors the slow-growth policy of both the county and state administrations. The policy is designed to encourage tourism without killing what is left of Hawaii's natural beauty, and also to keep the state's total population under 1 million.

"Molokai is one of the last frontiers of Hawaii," Hao said. "We've seen Waikiki, Lahaina, Kihei and Kona and we're not going to let that sort of strip development happen. We're only going to build hotels and condominiums as they're needed by restricting zoning and building permits."

One key to successful but limited tourist growth, Hao said, is separating tourism from day-to-day life on the island. The big Sheraton is on the west coast, more than 20 miles away from the residential areas of Kaunakakai and points east.

"We didn't want to build the hotel in somebody's backyard, with chickens and pigs running around," he said with a smile. Hao and others say it's important to understand what Molokai is like right now, because, they argue, it won't be that much different in the future.

The relatively isolated Sheraton is the only major tourist hotel on the island. Other than its golf course and tennis courts, there isn't that much to entertain visitors. There is a day-long mule ride through the island's interior, and the old leper colony on Molokai's north coast attracts tourists in limited numbers. Molokai Ranch, under pressure from Sheraton to build something for tourists, is expanding a small-game farm and planning a treetop restaurant.

However, that's about it. Even the strongest Molokai boosters admit the whole island can be seen in a day or two. Most of the island retains its natural charm. Kaunakakai is a dusty, wide-street town without a stoplight, only occasionally bothered by the loud rumble of a tour bus. There are now, besides the Sheraton, only two other smaller hotels on the island and just a couple of condominiums.

Hao said there are plans now for one more condomimium development of 70 units but no other hotels to immediately compete with the Sheraton.

"We have an obligation to the people of Molokai to protect the island and to foster employment," he said. "But we also have an obligation to the investors [in the Sheraton] to make sure they're successful. They came to our rescue when we needed it [after Dole left]. By keeping everybody else out, we make it easier for them to get their investment back."

Despite Hao's protestations, it's sometimes difficult for an outsider to see just how Molokai will withstand the boom economy of tourists and condominiums so evident just across the channel, on Maui. There, new houses and condominiums continue to pop up. The condominium units on Maui appreciate at a fantastic rate and usually change hands at least once or twice while still under construction.

For instance, one Maui condominium unit originally sold for $47,000 in 1975. The two-bedroom, two-bath unit recently was resold for $500,000.

The Sheraton may be just the first of five major resort hotels to go up along Molakai's one fine strip of beach. Plans for the four others are tentative.

"Nobody is going to come in and start developing until this hotel and this tourist destination are established," said Carl Kono, the Sheraton manager. And the Sheraton, he pointed out, isn't established yet. Occupancy rates have been running 60 to 70 percent during the week and as high as 90 or 95 percent on winter weekends.

The goal, he said, is to get into the 80s and 90s every day. "We're still getting the question, "What's a Molokai?'" said Joyce W. Curry, assistant public relations director for Sheraton in the Pacific. "But six or seven years ago everybody was hearing about Maul and Kaui for the first time. That's where Molokai is now."

Which, of course, is precisely what bothers people like Ritte.

"This is a dot in the ocean we're talking about," he said early one recent morning while bathing his child in an outdoor bathtub next to his home. He already had slopped the hogs he keeps for meat, and soft tropical breezes promised another perfect day on Molokai.

"You can't fill it up without ruining it."