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Elvis and the tourism trade

Jed Stockton /  Mar 26, 2009

The other night, while browsing through some of the discount DVD bins at a Hilo department store, I came across a copy of Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii."

I realized I had never seen this movie. It gives a time capsule of an Oahu when there were still sugar cane fields and pineapple plantations in full production.

So "Blue Hawaii" was taken home for a $5 fee. The Technicolor images of 1961 Oahu and Kauai were something to see. Even the stock footage of Waikiki Beach was vivid and picturesque in this restored version of the Elvis classic. The plot was a little corny, as with most Presley movies, but there was some history to witness there. And some food for thought.

When Presley's character did not want to go work for his father's pineapple business, he announced he would go it alone and become a tour guide -- since tourism was a growing business and the island was booming with activity.

Flash forward to 2009 and tourism is still king -- pardon the Presley pun. Only now, it seems to be the only industry lawmakers see as profitable.

Just this past week, Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona issued a formal protest against NBC for a Saturday Night Live skit that spoofed Hawaii and its tourists. Aiona said that the skit gives the wrong impression -- that island visitors are not welcome here. In the skit, Duane "The Rock" Johnson and Fred Armisen play a hula dance duo, who go from table to table in a fictional Hawaiian resort. They berate the guests and tell them what they really think of tourists.

I can understand Aiona's cause for concern. The quality of life for people living on the islands is directly tied to how many tourists pack their bags and hope to "get laid" right off the plane. The economic mess that the country is in is affecting Hawaii tremendously -- hotel occupancy is down, would-be tourists are opting to stay closer to home and cruise ship lines have cut back on ships traveling here.

It's no laughing matter that Hawaii's economy is so reliant on tourism. But why the Saturday Night Live protest? That's not going to solve anything.

Aiona can't think a mere comedy skit is going to deter tourists from coming here.

The skit highlighted some social problems facing the islands that marketing efforts from the tourism industry completely ignore. Johnson mentions teenage pregnancy, meth use and less than favorable housing conditions for residents who make minimum wage catering to tourists.

I'm happy to see some of the islands' social ills are finally being talked about on the national stage -- even if that stage is Saturday Night Live.

The movie's 1961 version of the islands, where Elvis roamed in his red sports car, showed a vital economy that included tourism, but did not completely rely on it. There was money to be made elsewhere and folks on the islands were making it. The movie depicts a time when pineapple, sugar cane and coffee were exported in great numbers.

This current challenging economy should be a wake up call for Hawaii. Tourism can't be the No. 1 industry because of the fluctuations of that industry -- and the fickle nature of tourism in general.

Agriculture needs to reign king on the islands once again. Taro, coffee, fruit, flowers and macnut farmers could be the saviors of the islands' economy, but we need lawmakers to focus on island-grown products and insist these products have the upper-hand over imported goods. It seems one thing the U.S. should have learned from the China food scare is that we are better at policing our food products than anyone else -- why introduce tainted products into the U.S. food source? We have the best products right here on the islands.

I wonder if folks from the era of Elvis' Hawaii would take a look at the 2009 version and wonder, "What happened?"

Sure, the movie was basically just a fun, fictional Elvis movie, but the one thing that rang true was a picture of an economically stable and secure Hawaii. After all Elvis said it best in Bue Hawaii: "This place is booming and I want to be a part of it."

Elvis and the tourism trade
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