Talk Story with Pohai Ryan
Executive Director, Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association
Ryan brings wide experience to her role, from managing an information office in Kailua to serving as a state senator. This Kamehameha Schools alumna plans to focus on culture and authenticity during her tenure, which started in January.
How does your varied background benefit you in this role?
My experience with tourism was directly with community tourism, when I served as manager of the Kailua Information Center. That’s where I became very familiar with the B&B visitor, the destination tourist. The association was looking for someone with a wide reach and wide extension with Hawaiian organizations, as well as a background in tourism and government, and how decisions are made at the Legislature. So far, it’s worked out really well.
It is hard advocating on behalf of the Native Hawaiian tourist industry?
It’s funny. I opened up my talk with the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce by saying that being Kamehameha Schools alumni means we have cultural purists among us. They dedicate their lives to our culture. People ask me if I’m a cultural purist and I say, “Of course not.” (Laughs) People who know me really well laugh.
What I am is an administrator. I know who are the cultural experts. We don’t do the training, but we have trained trainers. I reach out to people with high cultural integrity, whether in hula, mele, language or history. That’s one of the services we provide, that conduit to sources.
How do you deal with antagonism by some Native Hawaiians to tourism versus the industry’s importance to Hawaii’s economy?
I’ve personally dealt with this issue growing up, when you don’t know how to feel about tourism. But, the way I see it now, who better to represent Hawaii than our own people. Hookipa (to entertain; hospitality) is who we are, and we should have more Hawaiian in this industry. But we are actually going away from that. There are a lot of well-paying jobs in tourism, and hotels aren’t the only venue for tourism careers.
Visitors want their cultural education to be authentic. I hate to use the word “tours,” but there are opportunities for Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs to develop self-guided tours for people, to market themselves as hosts. There’s no disputing that tourism is the No. 1 industry for Hawaii. People on Oahu tend to forget that because it’s crowded and there’s so much going on. But on the Neighbor Islands, tourism is the lifeline for them. If there was no tourism, there would be nothing.
For lack of a better term, I think our people have a love-hate relationship with tourism. I saw this bumper sticker that said, “Aloha starts with me,” and that’s true. It has to start with the individual person. Hawaiians have to remember hookipa is about inclusiveness and always making others feel welcome. I feel very offended when people say very negative things about visitors. When I travel, I don’t want people to treat me badly, either. We should all be gracious to everyone, it doesn’t matter who they are. That’s why the cultural component of Hawaii’s tourism is not only special but necessary.
If you look at European nations, the only way they can distinctly separate themselves is by culture. The only thing that draws people from France to Germany is because it’s a different place and culture. Hawaii can never lose that because we are so isolated geographically. We have such a beautiful culture and history.
How much do you think visitors know about Hawaii’s culture and history?
I just came back from Vancouver, Washington’s 3 Days of Aloha festival, where we did a survey. We wanted to understand how people view our culture. We were surprised that most people who took the survey were very familiar with Hawaiian culture. The traveler today is very educated.
What else did you learn that was helpful to your planning?
Almost everybody who took the survey said it would help a lot more if there were educational videos about Hawaii they could access on the airline ride here. That’s a captive audience for at least five hours! So one of the projects we’re working on is Hookipa TV. As the director, one of my highest priorities is teaching people about respectful visiting. We’re hoping to create PSAs about being courteous and respectful and tell moolelo (stories) about historic sites.
Why focus on respectful visiting?
People should learn about the beauty of Hawaii and why they should care about conservation. And why it should be done respectfully. When we were on Maui on the way to Hana, I was shocked: This visitor jumped out of his car, climbed a fence that was marked “Private Property” and everybody followed him. People irresponsibly encourage such things online. I love tourists. I don’t have the tourist-go-home attitude, but, at the same time, we have got to find balance.
What are some solutions?
We could set up an information desk to tell people what’s proper and safe. We need to find a way to educate people and change their behavior. I think it starts with the airplane ride. Since we’re a nonprofit, we have a better chance of selling the idea of a uniform message to different airlines. We’re not trying to make money or sell anything. We just want to get the proper message out there and still have the tourists know we welcome them. That’s my No. 1 priority in this position. I want visitors and locals to understand the importance of respectful visiting.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.