Hawaii tourism

Peter Apo: A Different Model for Community-Based Hawaiian Tourism

The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s new management team, led by John De Fries, has raised the bar significantly by responding to public rejection of Hawaii’s longstanding visitor industry model.

The dramatic decline in visitor arrivals in 2020-21 caused by the Covid-19 crisis has allowed HTA to press the reset button on what more than a few residents feel has become a stifling, wallet-driven industry, hence there seems to be no relief for the people of Hawaii.

Recently, HTA hosted its first online public review of progress in developing Destination Management Action Plans (DMAPS) for Kauai, Oahu, Island of Hawaii and Maui Nui (Maui, Molokai, Lanai ). HTA’s planning model is for each of Hawaii’s counties and their respective tourism boards in a partnership that offers each island the opportunity to shape its own tourism destiny.

I suppose an important goal of the ETS is to allow each destination to create its own DMAP bottom-up rather than top-down.

HTA’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan states that “destination management includes the attraction and education of responsible visitors; advocate solutions to overcrowded attractions, overburdened infrastructure and other tourism-related issues; and work with other responsible agencies to enhance the natural and cultural assets enjoyed by both residents and visitors to Hawaii.

I think HTA is on the right track with the island-specific DMAP initiative – and I hope it will eventually evolve to a level of sophistication that can be applied to individual communities on each island.

Defining community tourism

The ETS website refers to the destination management action planning initiative as a community tourism program. It is important to note that the word “community” can be invoked to refer to an entire island, a geopolitical sub-district of the island, or a city somewhere on the island. I would define the community as towns such as Waianae, Kailua, Kapolei, Kaneohe, Haleiwa, Lahaina, Hanalei, Wailuku, etc.

The Covid-19 crisis has given the Hawaii Tourism Authority a chance to reset. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Community tourism is on a smaller scale and stems directly from a community deciding first how much they are willing to share with tourists – if at all – and second, on what terms.

Community tourism should not be imposed from outside. Hawaii has a love-hate relationship with tourism because the business model that hangs over the islands like a long shadow too often succeeds at the expense of the places and people it touches in what seems like an unequal exchange of value.

Community-based tourism is a mix of experiences created and exploited by local, traditional or indigenous people to improve their quality of life. It also seeks to protect and restore their environmental and cultural assets and engage visitors on community-defined terms.

The business model often includes walking tours, cultural performances, food, museums, recreation programs, craft co-ops, nature and wildlife hikes, culture and history lectures communities, storytelling, and healing and health services. It includes just about every aspect of the community experiences carried out by the people who live there, which gives value to the experience.

The very nature of community-based tourism places limits and limitations on the number of visitors that can be accommodated so that the sense of place is not overwhelmed and the ratio of local population to visitor numbers remains balanced.

For Hawaii, community tourism would be a more sustainable business model. Large-scale tourism models, driven primarily from outside the target community by third-party industry vendors, often result in creating more problems for a community than they solve.

Some of Hawaii’s experiences have been particularly damaging to a community’s culture, traditions and customs and its sense of place. Community-based tourism is about establishing a more direct connection between the place, the people who live there and the visitor.

Community-based tourism invites much more intimacy between host and guest than other tourism business models allow. It provides a much more authentic activity for the guest, as it is an activity that exists for itself and is not designed specifically to entertain a stranger. This is more of a community sharing its true culture than third party entertainment.

The Ho’okaulike triangle

George Kanahele was a great Hawaiian visionary and my mentor. He and another Hawaiian visionary, Kenny Brown, founded the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA) before there was hypertension.

NaHHA plays a central role in the current tourism dialogue. While running NaHHA, George pioneered a concept of tourism management which he defined as the Guest-Host-Place model. The guest means the visitor. The host are the people who live in the place. The place is the destination.

Community-based tourism is about establishing a more direct connection between the place, the people who live there and the visitor.

George graphically expressed his Guest-Host-Place model as an even triangle. The three dots are alternately labeled Guest, Host and Venue. In the center of the triangle, the word Ho’okaulike, which means “to evenly balance”, is printed in bold letters.

His model prescribes that the “benefits” of the tourist experience should be evenly distributed to each point of the triangle – the visitor, the people who live there, and the place visited.

By the way, the word “benefits” is not limited to the almighty dollar. Visitor behavior is one of a number of important variables that can be interpreted as a boon or a curse – the same goes for environmental impact. HTA already has a long list. It would be interesting to see if a benefit distribution chart could actually be designed to bring George’s Ho’okaulike model to life.

Connect the past to the future

Community tourism is a community celebrating its own greatness and inviting strangers to join in the celebration. If it is about the preservation of heritage, it is also about the evolution of a heritage.

It does not need to freeze landscapes or cultural practices and traditions. It’s about honoring the past and connecting it to the future in a dynamic evolution of the living culture of the local people – celebrating where they come from, defining who they are and creating new dreams that take them into the future.

Ultimately, community tourism is about preserving the dignity of a people who want to open their hearts to strangers from elsewhere. Imua.