Native Hawaiians are finally gaining a voice in tourism. Why that bodes well for Hawai‘i’s economy and way of life
The video montage of successful marketing campaigns splashed across two big-screen monitors inside the banquet hall at the Sheraton Waikiki and the attendees at the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau Annual Lunch clapped enthusiastically. 2006 was a very good year for making money in Hawaii tourism and this luncheon appeared to be a good time for tourism executives to pat each other on the back.
|VISION QUEST: Dancers from Halau Na Pua Mai Ka Lani perform at the Kuhio Beach Torch Lighting and Hula Show in Waikiki. Organizers say the daily sunset show is part of cultural icon George Kanahele’s vision to present authentic Hawaiian culture on a permanent hula mound in Waikiki.|
But then the keynote speaker, Douglas Kahikina Chang, took the stage.
“We mustn’t forget that Hawaii’s appeal was built to a large extent on the host culture and a core value of that culture, aloha,” Chang, a Native Hawaiian, told the crowd of nearly 900. “The host culture is vibrant and exciting but one that is continually under siege. ... In many ways, we have used and abused the Hawaiian culture for tourism’s gain.
“We have decades of abuse to overcome,” Chang implored.
At the end of his impassioned speech, there was a brief silence through most of the audience as members of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA) jumped to their feet and applauded. The rest of the room was roused to a courteous applause, with a scattered few across the room rising out of their seats.
Five years ago, that speech, given in late November, might have been an activist’s speech, recited on the resort steps instead of inside the banquet hall. In the last several years, tourism has put more and more stock in the belief that, without Hawaii’s unique culture, it’s unlikely people will continue to pay high prices to come here.
Slowly, a movement is building in tourism to truly foster Hawaiian culture.
Slowly, Native Hawaiians are gaining a stronger voice in tourism.
Take Chang. Today, he is the first Native Hawaiian chairman of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, a position he obtained through the backing of political leaders as well as industry officials and his peers. Chang, who is the general manager at the Hotel Hana-Maui, admits the awkward applause at the end of his keynote speech shows Hawaii still has a long way to go.
“I don’t know if everybody was ready for that. I think there was a kind of ‘wow’ feeling, and people were not sure how they felt about it. I know that I touched a few nerves,” Chang says.
Demonstrating how far Hawaii has come, he quickly quotes an e-mail from a man who heard his speech: “He said he had waited 25 years to hear someone say that at that luncheon.”
It needed to be said, Chang says.
(To read the full text of Chang's keynote speech, see the bottom of this page.)
The Writing on the Wall
A 2005, state-backed survey showed a majority of residents believed the Islands were “being run for tourists at the expense of local people.” This was the first time that sentiment had crossed the 50 percent mark (reaching 55 percent) since the survey started in 1988. In the most recent survey, released in December, the number has now reached 62 percent.
That trend stands in stark contrast to industry trends. For 2006, at press time, the state projection was for 7.58 million tourists, up from the record 7.38 million in 2005. Economist Leroy Laney had more good news at the First Hawaiian Bank Business Outlook Forum in November. He estimated a 2.4 percent increase in visitor numbers in 2007.
Hawaii is also at the leading edge of a fortuitous national trend: rising demand and increasing room rates. The occupancy rate in the Islands for the first 9 months in 2006 was 81.6 percent, 16 percent over the national average, according to Hospitality Advisors LLC. Hawaii’s average daily room rate jumped 12.4 percent to $185.29, which was nearly double the national average. Smith Travel Research places Hawaii behind only New York City in room rates in the United States, though Hawaii had a larger percentage increase.
All indicators bode well for another good year for revenues in 2007. In fact, Hospitality Advisors estimated 2006 would be a record year, with $3.22 billion in room revenue, followed by $3.5 billion in 2007. At a recent meeting, where these numbers were dissected, Robert Styles, of New York-headquartered Sonnenblick Goldman Co., gleefully told the crowd: “This is a fabulous time to be in the hotel industry.”
So why has resident sentiment about tourism reached such a low?
Consider on the same day this headline ran in the “Honolulu Advertiser” about those hotel projections, “Hawaii hotels face ‘another good year,’” a letter to the editor decried the closing of a North Shore hospital, the only one in the community, as Turtle Bay Resort moved toward its major expansion. The letter writer wanted to know about state priorities, because, while a massive hotel project was moving forward, the same community was losing a critical service.
Or consider that as record visitor revenues were touted, four days later, on Nov. 21, the “Advertiser” ran this headline: “Record haul in ’05 for thieves.” The Honolulu Police Department reported $76 million stolen, $30 million higher than the previous year. In the same month, the U.S. Census released a report showing that people of Native Hawaiian descent were more likely to be living in poverty than other Island residents.
As tourism has boomed, many residents believe they have not seen an equal boom in their quality of life. From skyrocketing housing costs to many low-paying jobs in Hawaii, the current economic news is not necessarily good for many. Vickie Suyat, vice president of development for Catholic Charities Hawaii, says people are now working two to three jobs, losing more time in traffic, spending more on housing, and spending less time with their families.
In a state where the main economic driver, tourism, provides mostly services jobs, the median cost of a single-family house on Oahu was $610,000 in November.
The Institute for Human Services puts the homeless population at 6,000.
“There is no question the gap between the rich and poor is widening,” says Sylvia Yuen, director of the University of Hawaii’s Center on the Family. Yuen cites tax data that show 60 percent of income in Hawaii goes to 20 percent of the people. “That leaves 40 percent for the rest of us. That’s 80 percent of the people.”
Murray Towill, president of the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association, readily recognizes what he describes as a disconnect between the industry and the community in Hawaii. Towill says tourism is often a “handy target” for increasing problems in Hawaii such as affordable housing, traffic conditions and failing infrastructure. Towill firmly maintains that those type of larger social issues are too large to place solely at the feet of tourism. Everyone, he says, from government to individual citizens play a role in those issues.
On the flip side of the coin, Towill says, what isn’t always mentioned are the benefits of tourism, from increased jobs and tax revenue for government services and capital improvements on to increased social opportunities, such as fine arts, which are given major boosts from the dollars visitors spend here.
“That disconnect has been going on for a while and that is why there have been increased efforts in the industry to increase the dialogue with the community. Dialogue is an important part of the solution,” Towill says.
Towill adds that tourism leaders are also concerned about these issues as community members, but tourism also has an economic stake in a potential further decline in resident sentiment.
“If people are not welcomed here, people will not want to come,” Towill says.
That issue extends into the long-term sustainability of tourism, which he also believes increasingly depends on the unique cultural experience Hawaii offers. As the international tourism market changes, Hawaii is increasingly more competitive with Southeast Asian destinations and places like Mexico, which can offer sun and sand for considerably cheaper.
“We as a tourism community are very cognizant that if we are not able as an industry to keep the populace involved and happy with tourism we will lose their support,” says Rex Johnson, HTA president and chief executive officer. “Then we lose this thing called aloha, and, once we lose that, we become like any other destination.”
That issue was the driving force behind HTA’s Hawaii Tourism Strategic Plan 2005-2015. The goal is to first and foremost honor Hawaii’s people and culture, its natural resources, and to engender mutual respect among the stakeholders. That will in turn help build a sustainable economy and ensure visitors receive a unique experience.
As a central tenet of that plan, HTA has begun supporting Native Hawaiian programs. Over the past two years, Chang says HTA has committed more than $2 million for Hawaiian cultural efforts. In 2007, nearly $2 million is earmarked for cultural programs, some of which have no direct connection to tourism except that they support the culture. Another $3 million annually is dedicated to preserving natural resources.
Another key tenet of the plan is to encourage Native Hawaiians to take leadership positions.
Meet Douglas Kahikina Chang.
A Long Time Coming
When he graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1978, Chang had never thought of tourism as a career. It was a way to pay for school. As his career in tourism progressed, he led separate lives. He had his professional life and his home life, where in certain company he made sure not to mention “his hotel job.” For many Native Hawaiians, tourism careers were in a sense selling out.
Then he attended a conference in the late ’80s with local cultural icons, George Kanahele and Kenny Brown, where Native Hawaiians set out to tackle the issue of how tourism and culture could coexist, even prosper together. “There was even a slogan called ‘Tourism, Keeper of the Culture,’” says Chang, 46. It was his defining moment. “It was going to that conference that a light went on. I saw there was no need to live in separate worlds,” he says.
Chang says attendees left the conference thinking big change was about to come. Years of what he describes as the “bastardization” of Hawaiian culture, years of cellophane skirts and a Hollywood Hawaii, were going to end. “But visualizing it and putting it into practice was a much longer journey than any one of us imagined,” Chang says. Hard economic times hit and anything not core to the business, such as cultural programs, ended up on the cutting room floor, he says.
However, in the recent economic good times, issues of quality of life and cultural preservation have come back to the forefront in an industry struggling with sustainability.
“I have seen huge leaps in the past four or five years,” he says. Chang’s rise to HTA chair in 2006 was just one of the manifestations of a shift in thinking. One of the first signs, Chang says, was the appointment of Kawaikapuokalani Hewitt, in 2004, to the HTA board to specifically represent Hawaiian culture.
Lulani Arquette, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hotel and Hospitality Association, says of the leadership changes in the industry: “Native Hawaiians now have an opportunity, for the first time since statehood, to really have an impact. I am not saying it is going to be easy, but this opportunity has never come before.”
The changes for tourism companies come down to philosophical shifts, says Chang. It’s about making an effort to be culturally appropriate, which for different businesses will mean different things. It can range from something as simple as playing authentic Native Hawaiian music in a hotel to more substantive changes in corporate culture, which could result in such things as appointing a cultural practitioner to help with business decisions or making family a core company value. It also means being active in community projects, pursuing community friendly development and attracting more Native Hawaiian leadership.
Arquette says her organization, at press time, was finalizing a list of recommended changes for tourism businesses that resulted from the first Native Hawaiian tourism conference held last April. NaHHA is also working on a curriculum to help foster culturally appropriate businesses and a training program. Next year, NaHHA also plans to release a best practices publication to acknowledge the companies that are succeeding in marrying Hawaiian culture with business.
“People [in the industry] are accepting that there is some merit to the discussion,” says Ramsay Taum, director of community outreach and special assistant on host culture to the dean of the University of Hawaii School of Travel Industry Management at Manoa. “We are at the point where we are asking how do you operationalize it.” But he adds it will be a tall task to achieve industry wide, as many hotel owners are Mainland and International companies that might be looking at short-term revenue goals and not long-term investments in culture.
Then there is always the threat of an economic downturn shelving plans.
“But everyone is accountable now. The laundry is out. You are either going to be part of the solution or part of the problem,” says Taum.
A Matter of How
As Chang was preparing his speech, HVCB informed him how many people would be attending the lunch: 900. “I am not a public speaker. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s more people than live in Hana,’” Chang says. When he took the stage, he was nervous. During his speech, he anxiously peered out at the crowd. “Everybody was looking at me,” Chang says. People were engaged.
His speech was not accusatory, but implored people to change, together. And Chang believes people were interested in understanding the issue and making changes. The awkward applause was just a sign people needed to digest his words, he says. It was not rejection, but fear of the sensitive issue. He believes people who live in Hawaii want to embrace the core values that make this place special.
The question for most is how? The answer is not easy, he admits.
“Each individual entity will have to take up the challenge and see what works for them,” Chang says. “They are not going to wake up tomorrow and be culturally correct, and you are going to make some mistakes and yeah, you are going to be chastised. You have to be willing to fight the long fight.”
Read the Speech: As the first Native Hawaiian chairman of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Douglas Kahikina Chang gave a powerful keynote address at the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau Annual Lunch. To comment on his speech or this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau Annual Lunch
Aloha mai kakou. Mahalo John for inviting me to say a few words as the Chair of the Hawaii Tourism Authority Board of Directors. It is an honor to be at the helm of this organization and I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to speak here today.
Like many local kids, my entry into the business of hospitality and tourism was not by design but rather default. As a student at Kamehameha and later the University of Hawai‘i, hospitality was never discussed as a career option. It was a way to pay for college. However, I made great money, traveled, met fascinating people and I got to share my home with guests from all over the world. Pretty good I thought.
But as I moved up the ranks, I became keenly aware that my professional and cultural lives were often at odds. Depending on the situation and who was present, I would avoid discussions about my “hotel job”. I was sometimes accused of selling out for the visitor at the expense of our culture and our land. I very well would have called it quits had it not been for a conference I attended in the late ‘80s with Dr. George Kanahele, Kenny Brown and many others from both the industry and host culture.
It was evident by this gathering that I wasn’t alone ... there were others out there who also struggled with the same feelings. Some of you are in the room with me today.
We talked about tourism and culture in the same breath. There was even a slogan called “Tourism, Keeper of the Culture”. Its message was that tourism and those of us who were a part of it, had a responsibility to keep our Hawaiian culture alive. This was the spark that lit the torch that I carry with me every day.
Today, I am proud to be a native Hawaiian who works in hospitality. I understand both my kuleana and the opportunities this provides me.
At the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, we have begun a shift that is being fueled by the many different stakeholders involved in, and impacted, by tourism. During the formative years after the Authority was created in 1998, the focus in terms of direction and resources was on Marketing. Rightfully so at the time.
Marketing is still a major component of our existence. Currently, a little over $50 million or roughly 70% of our total annual budget is dedicated to Marketing. Using these resources, we contract with what we consider to be the best in the business to carry out this task.
In fact, our primary partner, the Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau, is recognized worldwide for their expertise and serves as a model to many other destinations around the globe.
However, as we mature as an organization and gain experience, that mission has broadened. Over the last few years, we have become keenly aware that tourism is more than marketing. As a result, a lot more resources, also translated as dollars, are being spent on areas like the tourism product, natural resources, workforce development, research, and Hawaiian Culture.
In 2005, we collaborated with many of you and others from the public, private and community sectors, on the Hawai‘i Tourism Strategic Plan. This was a landmark accomplishment for us because it expanded our vision and role beyond the traditional model of what many perceived our role to be. The top nine priorities — or what we call initiatives — that surfaced have become the guide and foundation that we as board and staff use to develop our strategies, programs and plans.
But the real message we received ... from all of the community meetings and feedback ... is that tourism in Hawai‘i is out of balance and needs to be put back into balance. For me, finding balance is one of the keys to achieving long term sustainability for the industry and for Hawai‘i.
“Sustainability” has become a buzz word that we all talk about today, but what does this really mean?
Hawaiians not only understood this concept but they also actively practiced it. As a people, they were keenly aware that they had a finite amount of resources. As a result, they created systems that protected these same resources for future generations. This wasn’t only short term for their keiki but into perpetuity for ALL future generations.Ê This need has not changed. In fact, every day we lose resources that are gone forever.
Another buzz phrase that surfaced is “quality of life”. Those of us who are the drivers of tourism, all need to be very concerned about the quality of life for residents in Hawai‘i. You have heard both Rex and I say on numerous occasions that “if our residents are happy, then we have a greater chance that our visitor will be happy”. The opposite is even truer, “if our residents are unhappy, then our surely our visitors will not have a good experience”.
As the first Native Hawaiian to lead HTA, my goals are to make an impact with some of these tough issues, especially as they involve our host culture. We mustn’t forget that Hawai‘i’s appeal was built to a large extent on the host culture and a core value of that culture, aloha. It remains so today and will become even more important in the future as we see the globalization of tourism.
The host culture is vibrant and exciting but one that is continually under siege. We have to take responsibility for this. Not all, but certainly some. In many ways we have used, and abused, the Hawaiian culture for tourism’s gain.
I think in the past some in the visitor industry didn’t believe that an authentic Hawaiian experience would “sell”. They felt a need to provide a version of Hawaiian culture that was packaged for mass consumption and, frankly, fake ... because that’s what they thought the customer wanted. The result was a distorted representation of Hawai‘i and Hawaiians that was, at best, embarrassing and, often, offensive to the Hawaiian host culture.
I believe that we have all used images, phrases, icons and people that were not a true and pure representation of the host culture. Although I believe that most of it was not done intentionally, that still doesn’t make it okay or right.
It is no wonder then, that there has been a rift between the native Hawaiian community and the visitor industry. It is no wonder that we see increasingly negative scores when we conduct research among our residents about their attitudes toward tourism. And like it or not we, the marketing community, are taking a large portion of the blame for this.
But the good news is; that approach and that thinking, I believe, is changing. In the past few years, we have seen the start of some programs that give me hope that the industry will have a different and brighter future ... that the host culture will be honored ... and that balance will be realized. But it will take an uncompromising vigilance to gain credibility again. We have decades of abuse to overcome.
This means everyone — hoteliers, activities, attractions, transportation, retail, PR and advertising agencies. All of us. If one of us slips, we ALL take the heat. You have to hold your suppliers and partners accountable just as the host culture is holding us accountable. You can all vividly recall the events a few month ago when a major cruise line created a marketing campaign that featured the statue of Kamehameha holding a champagne glass. Even though they quickly responded and apologized, the damage was done and we all took the blame.
It’s important to recognize that these changes and shifts can not be done alone; we must involve and include the host culture. And forgive me, but not on a token level. It must be genuine and respectful. This is a risk for some, but the risk of not including the host culture is even more damaging. There must also be a fair exchange of value. We pay our attorneys and our consultants, so why not our kupuna and practitioners.
And that brings me to what we at HTA are doing. Let me first share with you the vision statement in Hawai‘i’s Tourism Strategic Plan:
By 2015, tourism in Hawai‘i will:
- Honor Hawai‘i’s people and heritage;
The first and second lines are: “To honor Hawai‘i’s people and heritage” and “Value and perpetuate Hawai‘i’s natural and cultural resources”. This is not a coincidence. One of the first signs that the times were changing was the appointment of Kawaikapuokalani Hewitt in 2004 as a voting member to specifically represent the Hawaiian Culture on the HTA Board of Directors. His mana‘o has been invaluable to all of us. More recently, HTA hired a staff member dedicated to Hawaiian Culture. We are very fortunate to have Keli‘i Wilson in the position of Hawaiian Cultural Coordinator. Keli‘i interfaces with all levels of the organization to ensure that Hawaiian culture is taken into consideration before decisions are made.
We have also made changes to our programs. In 2005, we took over the Keep it Hawai‘i Awards Program, to ensure alignment with the Hawaiian Culture Initiative in the Tourism Strategic Plan. We want to recognize those who authentically portray the host culture and who have demonstrated a commitment to honor and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture and communities.
Also, over the past two years, the HTA has committed two million dollars for Hawaiian cultural efforts including stepping up its funding and support of major Hawaiian festivals and events like the Aloha Festivals, King Kamehameha Celebration, Prince Kuhio Celebration and Prince Lot Hula Festival. These and other Hawaiian events ought to be world-class celebrations of Hawaiian culture.
Currently, we are in the final stages of awarding $750,000 dollars to various organizations throughout the State who are working specifically to ensure that our host culture flourishes. Many of these projects don’t have anything to do with tourism. I know that doesn’t sit well with some who believe all the funding should go to tourism. But if we consider long term sustainability, then we must take action today to ensure that the culture is healthy and vibrant into perpetuity. This is our responsibility. This is everyone’s responsibility.
Another critical part of the vision is preserving our natural resources. Our beaches, parks and trails are our jewels, but too often they are dirty or in disrepair. We need to maintain these jewels for our community and for our visitors. HTA is working with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the counties and community organizations to identify the most pressing problems...and have begun jointly to work on solutions, including allocating up to $3 million annually toward this initiative.
Many more dollars go directly to the counties through our product enrichment program. These fund projects important to communities on all islands. Many of these are focused on the Hawaiian culture as well as the many other cultures that make up these islands.
But as I said earlier, we cannot do it alone. We have partnered with the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association to provide strategic direction for the Hawaiian Cultural Initiative.
One of their immediate goals was to engage the Hawaiian communities. To that end, they convened the first statewide conference focused on Hawaiian issues within the context of tourism. Some of the comments and debate was difficult to hear — because it painfully exposed the rift between the host culture and tourism. But, at least we’re talking now. At least we have a place at the table. And that is a big step toward healing that rift.
We have also made a commitment to review our marketing messages to eliminate offensive and insensitive content ... and to incorporate appropriate cultural messages and images into our communications. Apart from our own programs, HTA is developing a resource book for others in the private sector to apply to their own marketing messages.
The bottom line is that this is everyone’s and I mean everyone’s kuleana. Do not pass the buck because someone above you made the decision. If we collectively take action, I mean real action, it will be amazing what we are able to accomplish.
Let’s talk about some easy first steps:
1. Do you have a Hawaiian dictionary at your desk?
Remember, you have kuleana (responsibility). This is a non-negotiable value of our host culture and it needs to be non-negotiable for you. Because if not us, then who will do this? But, we are not alone. I know that the host culture must also take responsibility and become involved in tourism. This is not going to be easy but I see some progress.
There is much more that I wanted to talk to all of you about today — but I know that there will be opportunities to continue this dialogue. In closing, I want to thank all of you and also ask for your support and commitment. As the first Native Hawaiian Chair of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, I have both an obligation and responsibility to both tourism and the host community. I look forward to working with each and every one of you. Mahalo.
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