Culture & Commerce in Hawaiʻi's Tourism Industry

Sep 21, 2017

Aloha Festivals Royal Court with Waikiki in the backdrop.
Credit Tor Johnson / Hawai'i Tourism Authority

Culture and commerce are often seen as forces in conflict. But here in Hawaiʻi, the culture is one of the driving forces of the state’s largest commercial sector – tourism. This week, HPR takes a closer look at tourism as part of our series - Travelling Money: Managing Hawai’i’s Tourism Future.  HPR reporter Ku’uwehi Hiraishi looks at the role of Hawaiian culture in the future of tourism.

That is the sound of kapa making. Kapa is the traditional barkcloth used for clothing by ancient Hawaiians. Kapa maker Dalani Tanahy is one of a half a dozen cultural practitioners at the Global Tourism Summit.

Kapa maker Dalani Tanahy was one of a half a dozen cultural practitioners at the 2017 Global Tourism Summit in Honolulu.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“This is a great opportunity for us to be here and share what we do, and to give people opportunities to see that you can have all the zip lines and all the paddleboards and all the whatever,” says Tanahy, “But without the Hawaiian culture, what’s the sense of the tourism.”

Native Hawaiian culture is one of the pillars of the tourism industry, but ensuring authentic representation is a constant challenge. Kalani Kaʻanāʻanā is the cultural programs director for the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority.

“I think we still struggle with that. Right? Like as a people, we still struggle with how our culture is interpreted or used, appropriated or misappropriated by some,” says Ka’anāʻanā, “And that’s part of what our work is, is to try to educate.”

HTA produced a style and resource guide for its brand managers and global marketing team that lays out the dos and don’ts of native Hawaiian culture and language.

“And really leverage that as the platform by which to start to set process and procedure for us to guide the marketing that we do have control over,” says Kaʻanāʻanā, “I will say, though, that there is a lot of marketing that we don’t have control over. Where you still see a lot of the tiki, grass skirt, kinda pineapple stuff.”

NAHHA Cultural Trainer Hiʻilani Shibata teaches workshop participants the basics of the Hawaiian language alphabets.
Credit Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association

But they can set the standard, says Pōhai Ryan, Executive Director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association. Her organization offers cultural training workshops for businesses.

“It’s a quality check more than anything else, being certified but also it’s having pride in our own product,” says Ryan.

For the past 20 years, NAHHA worked to ensure responsible representation of the culture in the tourism industry. It will host its first ever cultural education conference for Hawaiʻis hospitality industry starting Friday in Honolulu covering topics like respectful visiting and indigenous tourism.

“I think the native narrative or the Hawaiian community is at a good place where we can help design and navigate tourism instead of reject it,” says Ryan.

Credit Tor Johnson / Hawai'i Tourism Authority

As more and more visitors seek out unique and culturally-rich tourism experiences, Hawaiʻi has much to offer. And investing in the authentic representation and perpetuation of that culture essentially adds to the value of the tourist experience.

“How do we reflect inward first?” asks Kaʻanāʻanā, “Take care of home first and then if we’ve done that well, visitors will enjoy the experience when they do come to visit.”

Native Hawaiian culture is no longer a means to an end in the tourism industry, it IS the end.