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Visitors Want Authenticity

Integrating sustainability and Hawaiian culture into the tourism experience of the Hawaiian Islands

Jerome Agrusa, Ph.D., Professor, Travel Industry Management  May 10, 2010

Hawaii is among the world’s most famous tourist destinations. Scenery varies among these eight islands where the landscapes consist of golden sand beaches, glorious mountains, great stretches of barren lava beds, magnificent cliffs and canyons, opaque rain forests, and more. Due to its spectacular scenery and year-round tropical climate, Hawaii is also known as the “Paradise of the Pacific.” There are more ethnical and cultural groups located in Hawaii than any other US state. It is the only state in the US where Asians are the largest racial group, with Japanese representing the leading population. Other cultural profiles include numerous Polynesians including Hawaiian, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, and Portuguese.

Marked by the diversification of its culture, Hawaii is one of the world’s renowned travel destinations. Tourism is the most significant factor of economic activity in the state and the leading source of income.

Hawaii, in many people’s mind, brings up images of soft sand beaches, warm breezes, grass skirts, and luaus. In the past, tourists to Hawaii were content with sitting on the beach drinking a Pina Colada or Mai Tai and getting a rich, dark tan. However, tourists are changing, and there are segments of today’s tourists who are more interested in having a more authentic cultural experience while visiting Hawaii.

The recent trend in the tourism and travel-related businesses in Hawaii are focusing on increasing efforts to reintegrate Hawaiian culture, both in the management style and the visitor experience. Efforts in this direction have been made for several years, in some cases decades; however, more recently these efforts have been gaining attention from the media and the public eye. There is a trend and a demand towards more sustainable tourism, a tourism that is true to the host culture, its values, and the sense of place in Hawaii. This trend is manifested in visitors’ interest and demand for a more authentic Hawaiian cultural experience, as well as the travel industry’s shift in efforts to provide an experience that is unique and one that differentiates itself from other sea & sand destinations, such as Mexico and the Caribbean.

The cultural traveler
By examining studies and existing research, it becomes evident that a different type of traveler has emerged. There is a trend among travelers towards cultural tourism and historic sightseeing. Travelers do not seem to be satisfied with destinations that are homogenous and that do not offer unique cultural experiences. According to a study conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), which focuses on cultural and historic travel in the US, more than half (56 percent) of adults in the US participated in at least one activity related to culture, art, history, or heritage. Furthermore, cultural tourists are interested in learning new things on their trip, and they are interested in going to places that are popular with the local residents. In addition, it is important for a majority of tourists that a leisure trip or a vacation includes cultural experiences.

For a majority of cultural travelers, a cultural or historic event, or a cultural activity was often the reason for choosing a particular destination; a majority also extended their trip specifically to participate in a cultural or historic activity. Therefore, it becomes evident that cultural or historic travel represents an important market in the travel industry with historic and cultural travelers spending millions of dollars on lodging, food, entertainment, and shopping.

The trend of cultural and historic travel has been growing; from 1996 to 2002, and there has been an increase of 14 percent (from 192.5 to 216.8 million person trips), as opposed to only a 5.6 percent increase in travel overall.

Sustainability and authenticity in tourism
While the concept of sustainability can be interpreted and defined differently among various stakeholders, one of the more common themes concerns the most effective use or balance of resources. More specifically, the World Tourism Organization (WTO) conceptualizes sustainable tourism as preserving resources while enhancing a region’s opportunities for the future and at the same time meeting present tourists needs (WTO, 1998). Furthermore, according to Croall (1995), preserving cultural heritage, maintaining traditional values, and providing authentic experiences for tourists have often been highlighted as important elements of sustainable tourism.

Sustainable cultural tourism however, may be seen as a mutually beneficial partnership between tourism and the cultural heritage of the region. While there can exist conflicting interests in preserving the authenticity of cultural assets, there are also opportunities for complimentary relationships that can exist when effectively managed. It is challenging but also important for decision makers to value the link between preserving the authentic culture of the region while offering the optimal products for sustainable tourism. Previous cases have indicated that partnerships can help to develop a greater mutual understanding of stakeholder’s interests among the preservation of cultural authenticity and tourism development that can ultimately lead to more sustainable tourism for a region.

Evolution of Hawaii’s unique culture
Since tourism depends on a place and its uniqueness, preserving and maintaining the people’s cultural identity should be a top priority for the tourism industry. When the first visitors arrived in the late 1800s, Hawaii’s visitor industry benefited from the appeal of its unique people and culture. This “Hawaiianness” is what distinguishes the Hawaiian Islands from similar sun, sea, and sand tourism destinations, and is what attracted tourists to the Hawaiian Islands.

In order to understand a place, one needs to realize that all places are locations of experiences, which trigger feelings, images, and memories. Therefore, it is important for managers and employees in the tourism industry to have an understanding of the place and to help the guests in their understanding the feel of the place.

When it comes to the guest experience in Hawaii, it is important to realize that Hawaii’s attractiveness as a destination largely depends on its unique culture. Today, Hawaii is competing with various international tourism destinations, such as Mexico and Southeast Asia, which can offer beach vacations at much lower prices. Therefore, Hawaii must concentrate on its uniqueness, which differentiates it from other destinations. Getting residents involved and gaining their support is crucial, as this helps in preserving the “Aloha spirit,” which attracts visitors to Hawaii.

Usually a first-time visitor to the Hawaiian Islands already has an image or an expectation of the destination. This image is usually pieced together by accounts of previous visitors, existing books, articles, movies, documentaries, art work, and other forms of media. The quality of the information differs; some sources may give accurate facts, whereas others place too much emphasis on color and ambiance. Travel articles and stories usually have an advertising character, and place too much emphasis on sights, activities, and events in order to attract visitors to Hawaii. The information available often includes stereotypes and is usually not sufficient to educate visitors about Hawaiian culture, or to prepare them adequately for their stay.

Today’s efforts in reintegration of Hawaiian culture
When it comes to reintegrating the Hawaiian culture into the management style and the visitor experience, much is already being done to preserve Hawaiian culture and to present it in an authentic way. Many of these efforts are based on the teachings of Dr. George S. Kanahele who was a historian and expert in Hawaiian culture. Kanahele (1991) and the Waiaha Foundation started “Aloha Service 101” in 1989. They define Aloha as a genuine feeling, which is shared by many people in Hawaii and which has been an important part of Hawaii’s history and culture. Generally speaking, being caring and loving, and hospitable overall is an integral part of the Hawaiian culture. Therefore, the hospitality industry in Hawaii is automatically linked with Aloha. Guests come to Hawaii and they expect to be treated with Aloha.

Incorporating these values and principles can give businesses of any kind guidance in reintegrating Hawaiian values into the management style and communicating these values to the customers or visitors. Several businesses in Hawaii have already taken these principles to heart and are applying most of them or parts of them in their businesses today.

To make Waikiki more Hawaiian again, the use of the Hawaiian language in an accurate way, for example, when it comes to the names of places, is a crucial part of Hawaiian culture and essential to the restoration of Hawaiianness to Waikiki. Another emphasis is on honoring historical Hawaiian figures, events, and themes and to teach about Hawaiian myths and legends to their employees as well as their guests. Hawaiian traditions should also be revived, such as lei-making and selling the lei on the streets in Waikiki. The idea of communicating and treating people with Aloha should also be exercised, for example, to establish “Aloha corners” where guests can communicate or interact with local residents.

What visitors want
There is a vast majority of visitors who are “interested in Hawaiian culture,” and who state that the “tourism experience in Hawaii should be more authentic.” The most popular experience with visitors is Hawaiian music, followed by an “authentic hula performance.” Most notably, visitors who have been visiting the Islands for decades stated that they are disappointed that the Hawaiian music has vanished from Waikiki. An “authentic luau” and “lei making” were also popular with the respondents and “Hawaiian language introduction” also seemed interesting to a large number of visitors. Most respondents also think that it is very important to “experience native Hawaiian culture during their stay” and to “understand and respect Hawaiian culture.”

When it comes to the correlations, it becomes evident that visitors who rate themselves high on knowledge about Hawaiian culture also consider it important to meet Hawaiian residents and to experience native Hawaiian culture during their stay. This could be an indication that educating visitors about Hawaiian culture can bridge the gap between native Hawaiians and visitors through interaction, as well as stimulate the interest of visitors in Hawaiian culture overall.

Going forward
The emphasis on cultural tourism needs to offer tourists what they are looking for. Instead of having street performers on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, who do not portray Hawaiian culture in any way, perhaps offering concerts by authentic Hawaiian musicians should be considered and possibly even promoting an authentic hula show twice a week. In addition, since many visitors are interested in an authentic Hawaiian luau, it would be a good idea to offer a traditional luau in Waikiki, which focuses more on the cultural aspect than on pure entertainment and cocktails.

Having an authentic Hawaiian village in Waikiki would be a great attraction for tourists seeking a more authentic experience. Some of the activities that visitors are interested in, such as lei making or craft making could be incorporated in the form of workshops in that village in Waikiki. This could be an alternative to the offerings of similar “workshops” at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Native Hawaiians could interact with visitors by educating them about Hawaiian culture and values, teaching them Hawaiian language and engaging them in such activities as Hawaiian story-telling. This is especially important, since the study found that educating visitors about Hawaiian culture and interaction with Native Hawaiians could help to bridge the gap between Native Hawaiians and visitors and stimulate the interest of visitors in Hawaiian culture overall.

Hawaiian culture is what makes Hawaii unique, and an authentic experience is what visitors demand.

Integrating sustainability and Hawaiian culture into the tourism experience of the Hawaiian Islands
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Source: Hawaii Pacific University

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