Anyone wondering if Native Hawaiians are interested in tourism these days could have gotten a good idea this week at the Sheraton Waikiki hotel, where the nonprofit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement is holding its annual convention through Friday.
A panel titled “Culture, Tourism and Native Communities” drew so much interest that, as the discussion was about to start, a line of well over a hundred people was spilling out of the packed meeting room. The crowd was so big that organizers had to move the talk to a massive ballroom.
Kuhio Lewis, the council’s chief executive, watched as the throngs filed into the bigger room.
“When was the last time so many Hawaiians were interested in tourism?” Lewis said. “It looks like the whole convention decided to come to this one.”
John DeFries, a panelist and president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the crowd’s size showed something important.
“This is the best indication that the community is engaged,” said DeFries, whose organization recently awarded the council a two-year tourism marketing contract worth $35 million in public funds over two years.
As the council prepares to take over Hawaii’s flagship contract promoting the state to mainland travelers – the last hurdle is a protest by a competing bidder challenging the award — it’s very likely a high level of engagement will continue. And the council’s convention program went a long way to sustain that engagement.
The talk on culture and tourism featured not only DeFries, but also Doug Chang, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach; former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who now heads the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association; and Taimalelagi Minnie Patosina Tuia, director of the American Samoa Visitors Bureau.
Other panels included talks on tourism as an economic driver and redefining the Native Hawaiian community’s relationship with the visitor industry.
In addition, a plenary session on Thursday featured all four island mayors – Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino, Hawaii Island Mayor Mitch Roth, and Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami – discussing “regenerative tourism” and the changes they would like to see in tourism on their islands over the next decade.
Ritz-Carlton GM Calls Changes A ‘Revolution’
Still, Wednesday’s panel was important because it marked a rare opportunity to hear from leaders such as Chang, who is the head of the Council for Native Hawaiian transition team as the organization prepares to take over the contract.
With the contract award being protested by the venerable Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, which marketed Hawaii for more than a century until the council snatched the contract away earlier this year, the council has been tight-lipped about its plans until it hears from the final arbiter of the procurement challenge: the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and its chairman, Mike McCartney.
Although Chang didn’t discuss specifics on the contract or the council’s plans, he kicked off Wednesday’s talk on culture by calling the changes “a revolution” and exhorting those assembled to seize the opportunity and stay engaged.
“This is a rallying cry,” Chang said. “We have to take this torch.”
Often in the past, Chang said, tourism has shaped Hawaiian culture.
“We’re at a point where this needs to flip, and culture needs to shape tourism,” Chang said.
Following Chang, Hannemann was more specific. He called for mandatory training and certification in Hawaiian culture for everyone working in the hospitality industry.
“Anyone who works in tourism needs to go through a program to be certified in Hawaiian culture,” he said. “What’s wrong with being certified? What’s wrong with taking refresher courses?”
A major challenge involves building a consensus around such big ideas, said Pauline Sheldon, a professor emerita at the University of Hawaii’s School of Travel Industry Management who moderated Thursday’s discussion with the mayors.
To do that will first mean institutionalizing an ongoing process where various parties can craft solutions.
“We’re not going to have the answers tomorrow,” she said in an interview. “But we have to agree we’re going to put our heads together and ask the big questions, and be uncomfortable.”
Sheldon’s panel discussion ostensibly focused on “regenerative tourism,” the new buzz phrase, which recently supplanted “sustainable tourism,” in the lexicon of industry thought leaders. The idea is that regenerative tourism can produce benefits to the community that far outweigh tourism’s negative side effects.
What makes a tourist activity regenerative depends on the locale, but commonly cited examples are tourists shopping at farmers’ markets or going on farm tours. Such activities support local food production and diversified agriculture and the environmental benefits that go with that.
When fielding Sheldon’s questions about regenerative tourism on their islands, the mayors tended to speak in generalities or talk about specific measures they were taking to manage tourism’s negative side effects. For example, all four mayors spoke of their work managing short-term vacation rentals located outside of resort areas.
Blangiardi, for instance, pointed to Honolulu’s passage of Bill 41, which will make it harder for people to operate short-term vacation rentals outside of resort zones when the measure takes effect in October. Such rentals are already generally illegal under Honolulu’s zoning laws, although vacation rental operators can skirt the prohibition by renting a particular unit only once every 30 days. Bill 41 eliminates that exception.
Sheldon drew out more aspirational visions from the mayors when she asked them what they wanted tourism to look like on their island in 2030.
Blangiardi said he wanted tourists to appreciate they were coming a special place and treat it as such. To express the idea, he mentioned an old ad slogan used to market Hawaii: “Come for the beauty, but stay for the people.”
Roth said he would like to see regular “cooling off periods” for highly trafficked, environmentally sensitive areas, which he said can let ecosystems rejuvenate.
Kawakami conjured up a folksy vision of 30 years hence taking his future grandchildren surfing at his favorite spots – where, unlike now, he could find parking. Shuttles would transport tourists, who would be greeted at the beach by helpful “kuleana crew” who would teach the visitors what to do.
“Instead of looking at visitors as takers, we would have a different mindset,” he said.
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