Hawaii tourism

The history of tourism in Hawaii

Although the term is never quite accompanied by a specific time period, travelers and residents of Hawai’i are often poetic about “Old Hawai’i”. For some, “Old Hawai’i” refers to the time before European contact, or when Hawai’i was a sovereign kingdom. Other references to “Old Hawaii” might be the birth of the tourism industry or the years of growth following World War II.

In many imaginations, the golden years of Hawaiian tourism are considered the 1920s and 1930s, when there were only two hotels in Waikiki and the majority of visitors arrived by sea. Hawaiian music and culture had by then begun to capture the imagination of the mainland, and the song Aloha ‘Oe, written by Queen Lili’uokalani, was a smash hit around the world.

Beginning in 1935, the popular radio program Hawai’i Calls, recorded under the banyan tree of the Moana Hotel, beamed Hawaiian music directly into living rooms across the United States. Radio listeners could spend their Sunday afternoons listening to acclaimed local singers like Alfred Apaka and Haunani Kahalewai while host Webley Edwards raved about the “surf and sand at Waikiki Beach”.

After such entertainment, it is not difficult to understand how Americans with means decided to take a trip. A fun thing to do when visiting Waikiki, especially the royal hawaiian or what is today Moana Surfrider, is to imagine what it must have been like to be a tourist in these same buildings in the first decades of the 20th century.

Tourism back then was a far cry from what travelers are used to today. Aviation was still in its infancy. A nonstop flight between Hawai’i and the West Coast would not be accomplished until 1927; Scheduled air service took nearly another decade.

At this time, passengers arrived by sea, many aboard a Matson Line passenger ship, purposely built for Hawaii’s growing tourist trade. Trips to Hawai’i were also much longer – the one-way trip alone took four days. With this type of time investment, hotel stays also tend to be longer.

At a minimum, a vacation in Hawai’i lasted at least two weeks, and on average closer to a month, an important period at a time when paid vacation was not yet a standard employee benefit. Money was another consideration. In the 1920s, Matson advertised tours “from $270,” or about $3,700 in today’s dollars.

Yet visitors would embark on the journey, and the welcoming committee would begin to set up shop in Honolulu Harbor under the famous Aloha Tower as soon as the ship was spotted skirting Le’ahi (Diamond Head).

Lei of fresh flowers would be delivered to the ship on the pilot boat and distributed to the passengers, who would all wear lei as the ship was warped into the harbor to welcome musicians and hula dancers. Shoreside, there were more lei for arriving guests, and of course a hearty “Aloha!”

Onshore logistics were easier for travelers at that time. Waikiki hotels would arrange transportation to and from the pier for passengers and luggage, but that’s far from the crush one experiences today. In the early 1920s, visitor numbers ranged from 8,000 to 12,000 arrivals per year, compared to the 18,000 daily passenger arrivals at Honolulu International Airport in 2018.

Car rental was not common before the end of the war, but public transportation on the island of O’ahu was already well established. Streetcars ran from Waikiki to Honolulu, and the railroad network supporting shipments of sugarcane and pineapples to the port was also used for tourist trains to the lodge at Hale’iwa.

Many visitors, especially those planning longer stays, brought their automobiles with them on the Matson liner, allowing them to explore the then underdeveloped neighborhoods of Aina Haina and Hawai’i Kai, as well as the suburbs to windward of Kailua and Waimanalo.

Hotels like the Royal Hawaiian look much like they do today on the outside, though the interiors have changed significantly to accommodate modern travelers. When the building was completed in 1927, ensuite bathrooms were not yet standard, although the hotel had a higher percentage of rooms with private bathrooms than many contemporary hotels. The Royal Hawaiian even had a separate “swimmer lift” for guests who didn’t want to brave the usual hotel walkways in their beach gear.

The hotel’s 400 rooms were furnished with imported carpets and featured louvered interior doors to allow cross breezes to cool the rooms during these pre-air-conditioned times. Unlike today, the best rooms offered garden views, as crashing waves and ocean views were the last thing travelers wanted after disembarking from a long sea voyage.

Hungry guests could have afternoon tea at Moana or the Royal Hawaiian (served by kimono-clad ladies in the latter, a practice that ended on the night of December 7, 1941). Daily menus were decidedly un-Hawaiian, with imported foods and recipes such as ham and chicken pressed in aspic, Ukrainian borscht, boiled beef tongue, spring lamb or liver and onions.

Still, there were a few local nods: in addition to decidedly temperate weather fruits like apples, grapes, pears and strawberries, there was fresh pineapple and “papaia” (papaya) and coconut-based ice cream from the hotel grove. Other local treasures like poi and guava jelly have also crept into early menus.

The advent of reliable air travel after the war changed Hawaiian tourism forever. Waikiki experienced a construction boom after affordable jet flights brought in tourists from around the world, but the Moana and Royal Hawaiian live on in their original footprints, despite being flanked by huge towers. hotel (both properties have also expanded and built their own contemporary towers). in the 1960s).

Today, car rentals are plentiful and menus abound with regional Hawaiian cuisine. Guests fly in for stays often as short as long weekends, and the lodge at Hale’iwa and the railroad to get there have long since been demolished.

But guests can still enjoy afternoon tea at Moana and a respite in the Royal Hawaiian’s bather’s elevator, passing through lobbies that look a lot like those when the hotels opened.

With a momentary lull in the crowd and a vintage Instagram filter, it can almost feel like that golden age all over again.