RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ed Valkovic, a visitor from Toronto, strings an orchid lei during a lei-making class at Hilton Hawaiian Village. The Hilton is among the state's hotels emphasizing the host culture of Hawaii to tourists.
Tourism industry in search of aloha
The state's tourism industry is looking for ways to allow visitors to experience the Hawaii culture
Dancing hula with a freshly woven lei of pink and white plumeria atop her dark curls, 5-year-old Alena Taing almost could pass for a keiki o ka aina.
Only the location of the dance, Hilton Hawaiian Village, reveals that Taing is a visitor from Seal Beach, Calif., and that she is part of a growing population of tourists who have come to Hawaii to feast on more than sun, sand, and surf. When it comes to satisfying their thirst for Hawaii, visitors these days more often are in search of the aloha spirit, a sort of expanded Golden Rule made up of all the elusive things islanders consider important enough to pass down to their own offspring.
This time around, Taing, who is on her eighth trip to Hawaii in five years, learned to string a lei, dance the hula, play the ukulele, conserve coral and avoid stepping on the fish eggs. While the knowledge that Taing has acquired won't take up much space in her suitcase, she's planning to transport it back to the mainland and share it with her friends and family. These experiences, which make up a Kodak moment for Taing and family, are an invaluable marketing tool that Hawaii's tourism industry is just learning to tap into.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sandy Snyder, left, from Baltimore, and Dolly Fernandes, from Alberta, Canada, learn how to play the ukulele from Keoni Joa at Hilton Hawaiian Village.
"We can go to the beach at home, but the culture of Hawaii is priceless. You can't get it from watching TV or reading books, you get it from being around the people and the land," said John Taing, Alena's father. "I want my kid to learn these things so that hopefully when she grows up she will become a well-rounded person."
It's the feel-good moments like Taing's that the state's visitor industry is counting to help them differentiate Hawaii from other emerging sun, sand and surf destinations that offer newer and cheaper accommodations and activities. When visitors really experience the Islands of Aloha, the state gets the benefit of word-of-mouth advertising --- which has proven to be the most cheap, fast and effective method.
"Our programs have paid off in the sense that we fulfill the expectations of the people who come here and that they go home and tell others about it," said Gary Seibert, the managing director of Hilton Hawaii. "Word-of-mouth advertising is something that you can't buy--- it has to be experienced."
Hilton has spent extensive time and money to connect guests with Hawaii's culture and people, said Seibert, who sits on the board of the Aloha Festivals. In 1988, Hilton Hawaii completed a $100 million architecture renewal to return the property to paradise, he said.
At that time, Hilton also added guest programs like its weekly King's Jubliee Celebration honoring Hawaii's Merrie Monarch King David Kalakaua in a festival complete with hula, live entertainment and fireworks. Indigenous Hawaiian plants and extensive art work celebrating the culture adorns the property, Seibert said.
A sculpture of renowned kapa maker Puanani Van Dorpe, which is the latest commissioned piece, will be unveiled later this year. In August, Hilton also will begin a $13 million to $14 million restoration of the Duke Kahanamoku lagoon --one of its largest community-based projects to date.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jannette Talavera, left, Tara Young, center, and Brenda Linton learn to do the Hukilau hula at Hilton Hawaiian Village.
A more sophisticated traveler base has created the need for Hawaii's visitor industry to partner with the community to offer more intimate and authentic tourism experiences that allow visitors to see, feel, touch, taste and smell the uniqueness of these islands, said Rex Johnson, executive director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which was created in 1998 to oversee management and spending of the state's visitor industry.
"The intangible but very real Aloha spirit enhances Hawaii not only as a great place to visit but to also to live and work," Johnson said. "Hawaii's culture and history are what make this place unique for residents and visitors. If we lose that, we're just another pretty beach."
As a result of new visitor preferences, there is a cultural resurgence taking place that can be seen in the architecture and design of Hawaii's visitor industry lodging, food and beverage, retail and infrastructure reinvestment as well in the structural makeup of the organizations themselves and in the activities and events that they offer to visitors.
And what's more, Hawaii's visitor industry has begun turning to the people of Hawaii for advice on how to incorporate the culture into its framework. Last year, the state adopted a tourism strategic plan that included a cultural initiative.
Two Native Hawaiians were asked to serve on the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the state has been holding community meetings to see how Hawaii's people, especially members of the host culture, think and feel about tourism.
"Our tourism strategic plan says that we've done a pretty lousy job of working with the Hawaiian community," Johnson said. "We haven't asked permission where it has been needed and we haven't tried to understand when we should have."
Shaping the future of Hawaii's tourism by building bridges between the Native Hawaiian community and the state's visitor industry also was the theme of the inaugural Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association conference held May 2-4. More than 300 members of the state's visitor industry, as well as Native Hawaiians and community members, attended to discuss the cultural impacts of tourism and to develop strategies that will enhance the relationship between the parties, said Tara Lulani Arquette, executive director of NaHHA.
As an outgrowth of that event, NaHHA will pursue establishing a Native Hawaiian Hospitality Authority separate from the HTA, tourism's current lead agency, she said.
"It's one of the ideas that has come out of the conference and has gained very strong momentum," Arquette said.
Doug Chang, a Native Hawaiian who serves on the HTA, said he supports the creation of a separate tourism authority for Native Hawaiians.
"The Hawaiian community is so diverse right now that the creation of an authority would help us bring all the voices together so that we could better decide how to allocate our funds and resources," Chang said. "Sure, this could be done within the current HTA, but I think the two entities would interface very well."
Hawaii's visitors no longer have to go far to learn to hula, write their name in Hawaiian, play some notes on the ukulele or make three-finger poi. But in the end, what really counts is not so much what visitors do here, but what they feel -- it's all about the aloha spirit and that is something the visitor industry has learned it cannot deliver without the community's support.
"You cannot separate our culture from our people. Where are you when the Hawaiian people are under attack?" said Keikilani Meyer, a conference attendee who works at Alu Like's Native Hawaiian Library.
Meyer, who spoke to those gathered at the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association's inaugural tourism conference, which was held earlier this month, said if Hawaii's visitor industry wants to remain healthy, the community needs to remain healthy.
"Sixty percent of Hawaiians are homeless and 38 percent of our people are in prisons," Meyer said. "It's time that the Native Hawaiian voice was heard."
Meyer's sentiments, and a recommendation from the tourism conference to create a Native Hawaiian Hospitality Authority separate from the state Hawaii Tourism Authority, comes at a time when state polls show that a majority of Hawaii residents believe the islands are being run for tourists at the expense of local people.
In 2005, for the first time, a majority -- 55 percent --of the 1,352 Hawaii residents surveyed by John M. Knox for the state agreed with the statement, "This island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people."
Of any group surveyed, Hawaiians were the least likely to say tourism was good for them in 2005 -- less than a third responded favorably.
The perception that home prices, traffic and crime have increased while nature and wide-open spaces have decreased were topics both in the recent survey, at the conference and in the state's newly created Tourism Strategic Plan, Johnson said.
Preserving Hawaii culture, the quality and number of parks and curbing pollution also were prevalent discussion items, he said.
Not all Native Hawaiians see tourism as the scapegoat for the state's challenges. Some, like Pearl Campbell of Waianae, see it as an opportunity to spread aloha and share the host culture with the world.
"I see tourism as being part of getting our prophecy across that a nation shall rise and share their aloha with the world," said Campbell, who has lived in Waianae for about 46 years and was born and raised on Oahu.
But in order to share the aloha spirit, Hawaiians have to define what that means and practice it themselves, she said.
"We, as Hawaiians, have to go back and get our culture solid," Campbell said.