The Cultured Tourist

Hawaii's travel industry wants visitors to include arts and culture in their itineraries. What's stopping them?

March, 2003

Contrary to popular belief, going home with a deep tan isn’t the only priority for Hawaii’s tourists. Visitors are interested in Hawaii’s arts and culture, too. Cultural tourism, defined as “travel directed toward experiencing the arts, heritage and special character of a place,” is a growing segment of the visitor industry nationwide, according to the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism. Roughly 46 percent (93 million) of the 199.8 million U.S. adult travelers include at least one cultural, arts, heritage or historic activity in their vacation plans. A 2001 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) found that history/cultural travel has increased 10 percent since 1996.

Hawaii certainly has had its share of arts and culture over the past year. Unfortunately, tourists comprised only 14 percent of the 4.6 million people who attended Honolulu’s nonprofit arts events in 2001. “Hawaii certainly offers the visitor to the Islands an exciting experience beyond the beauty of surf and sand,” says Susan Killeen, executive director for the art consortium. “Our image has to be changed.”

It only makes financial sense, after all. In 1997, the TIA found that cultural travelers spend more ($631 vs. $457 per trip); are more likely to lodge at a hotel, motel or B&B (62 percent vs. 56 percent); travel longer (5.1 nights vs. 3.4 nights); and are a higher-educated group (41 percent vs. 32 percent have completed college).

At last year’s arts and cultural events, Hawaii tourists spent more than twice as much as Hawaii residents ($54 vs. $20). They accounted for 31 percent of the event-related revenues, such as meals, gifts and souvenirs, transportation and overnight lodging. And they pumped $33.8 million into the local economy. Those numbers are based on a 2001 “Arts and Economic Prosperity” study by the Hawaii Consortium for the Arts.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) finds that cultural tourism has faced significant obstacles in the Islands, with individual arts organizations lacking resources to develop programs geared to visitors, the short duration or narrow interest areas of many cultural and arts events here and the historic reluctance of the visitor industry to expand beyond the “sun, sand, surf” model of Hawaii tourism.

That may be changing. HTA’s 2002 strategic plan, Ke Kumu, includes cultural tourism as “a means to attracting visitors who want to fully experience all that Hawaii has to offer.” Frank Haas, vice president of tourism marketing for the HTA, says a key cultural tourism initiative is the “Aloha Arts Season,” a 10-week to 13-week-long event-filled season, similar to the Spoleto Festival scheduled for the spring of 2004 in South Carolina. The Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau plans to support marketing efforts to promote the Aloha Arts Season in North America and Japan.

Pockets of cultural tourism activity have also sprung up over the past decade. Three years ago, the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NHHA) initiated the Waikiki Historic Trail, a guided walking tour, touted as “the first major initiative in contemporary Waikiki to restore a Hawaiian sense of place” to Oahu’s main tourist center.

Chicago has successfully turned to its own backyard to attract visitors through its 10 Neighborhood Tours (at $25 per adult). The tours offer architectural, cultural and arts activities in the city’s Chinatown, Greektown, African American and Ukranian neighborhoods. Special-interest tours also have been organized around Chicago Blues Music, the Great Chicago Fire, Literary Chicago and Chicago’s Theatres.

Murray Towill, president of the Hawaii Hotel Association (HHA), says the growing segment of cultural tourists is having different impacts on hotel properties. Some large resorts offer site-based cultural/historical experiences; others institute staff training in Native Hawaiian hospitality programs and still others, such as the Halekulani’s partnership with the Honolulu Symphony, offer guests a taste of the local arts scene.

“Tourists have lots of competing opportunities to visit places not available 20 or 30 years ago,” says Towill. “We’ll continue to see more such activities as Hawaii as a destination distinguishes itself.”

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Gail Miyasaki