How can Hawaii balance tourism and culture?

When John De Fries’ mother was in high school in the 1940s, she was forbidden from hula dancing and speaking Hawaiian, the language of h...


When John De Fries’ mother was in high school in the 1940s, she was forbidden from hula dancing and speaking Hawaiian, the language of her ancestors. The school she attended was for children of Hawaiian descent, but instead of encouraging students to embrace that heritage, she tried to erase it.

“This whole generation was the by-product of this radical Americanization, Westernization,” Mr. De Fries recently recalled. “The ironic thing is that 51 years later, my mother’s great-granddaughter graduated from the same school. And by then, fluency in native Hawaiian had become a requirement – ​​but it took half a century to get there.

In September 2020, with Hawaii’s tourism industry in a pandemic-induced tailspin, Mr. De Fries took over the lead role in tourism in his home state, becoming the first native Hawaiian to hold the position. As President and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, he is now responsible for supporting the industry which, before the pandemic, brought $2 billion in state tax revenue and employed more than 200,000 people.

His position has recently changed, Mr. De Fries told me when I contacted him via video call from his home on the Big Island. A few years ago, HTA’s main job was to promote Hawaii and market the islands to potential visitors. The agency still does these things, but these days its official mandate has expanded to include natural resources, community, and Hawaiian culture.

During our conversation, Mr. De Fries, 71, described how the lessons he learned as a child in Waikiki influenced his work, how he felt when Hawaii was empty of tourists, and why he had become addicted to the television show “The White Lotus”, which takes place in Hawaii.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I was born and raised two blocks from Waikiki Beach, half a block from the Honolulu Zoo, so literally about 2,000 yards from the base of Diamond Head. The waters there had been my family’s fishing grounds for a century before I was born, and when I was young we fished them every week. What I learned as a kid was that Waikiki was first a source of food, then a source of medicine – seaweed, sea urchins and stuff – and then it was a place leisure and well-being. There was a hierarchical order there: food, medicine, recreation. But in developing Waikiki, we reversed that order and put recreation first.

As we think about creating a regenerative model for tourism, we need to go back to the lessons we were learning back then. Native Hawaiians have always understood that their ability to sustain life in the middle of the Pacific was tied to living within the limits of the natural environment. So when I look to the future and the opportunities we have for tourism, I don’t see how we’ll do it on a large scale unless we start developing a 21st century version of that kind of thinking. Not everyone in the industry is ready for this, but I don’t think we have a choice.

We ended 2019 with a record number of visitor arrivals: 10.4 million. And six months later, in July 2020, visitor arrivals were hovering around zero. I remember I was standing on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki one night at 9 p.m., and there wasn’t a single vehicle moving in either direction. It felt like a film set, frankly – it was weird. An economic collapse of this magnitude is like a large building collapsing in on itself, and people are trapped underneath. People get hurt.

But at the same time, for the local community, it was euphoric, right? No traffic. No crowds at the beach. The beach parks were open. Forest trails were open. And local residents felt like we had our islands back. I also felt the euphoria. But I also knew it was like the equivalent of a sugar spike, because there was a whole huge amount of work that we had to do to get this system back in place.

Each island has developed its own action plan, so the answer to this question will be very island specific. The committees that developed these plans were very diverse – you could have a restaurant owner, a teacher, a hotel owner. The intent of this planning process was to give the community the opportunity to jointly design and define what a sustainable tourism model might look like. But in general, you’re going to have people who think that 6 million visitors a year is enough. And you’re going to have others who say we can still make 10 million. So there’s that kind of tension in this debate, but there’s also an agreement to be open-minded and civil in the discussion.

I watched the first episode and thought, “This is completely ridiculous.” And then I couldn’t stop looking at it. My wife and I got a bit addicted to it, because it was close to some experiences I had. Knowing full well that there is creative license taken in it, I thought they did a great job. In particular, when the young woman has a discussion with the local guy who is in the luau show and she recognizes that the culture is marginalized and asks: “How can this happen? These are alarm bells that have been ringing here for some time. There’s a whole conversation going on about how to build people’s capacity to provide authentic cultural experiences and reap financial benefits for themselves and their families – but without making people feel like they have to give up their own power.

People need to feel that their cultural identity and way of life are in fact valued. And I’m optimistic about that because I think the market is going to drive that change. You can’t counterfeit culture; you can try, but you will not succeed. So when the market starts to demand more authentic cultural experiences, it will start to make business sense. Because to move a system of this scale, commercial engines become really important.

You know, local residents have a responsibility to welcome visitors appropriately. Conversely, visitors have a responsibility to be aware that their destination is someone’s home, someone’s neighborhood, someone’s community. Approaching travel in this way will produce better experiences for both the visitor and the local resident, so I encourage everyone to keep that in mind. And enjoy your mai tai at sunset! Don’t forget that.

Paige McClanahanregular contributor to the Travel section, is also the host of The Best Travel Podcast.

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