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Stakeholders discuss balancing culture, sustainability, community in the tourism industry

Marine Corp Base Hawaii

The Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, or NaHHA, held its Ka Huina conference last week virtually. It brought stakeholders from community groups, state agencies, and the visitor industry to discuss the future of tourism in Hawaiʻi.

Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority board chair George Kam says finding a balance between the industry and the community is important for the state's future.

"Community is the essence of everything," he said. "The healthy community that we have, a healthy ecosystem. And when Aunty Pilahi Paki shared the 'Aloha Creed,' it was about the people of Hawaiʻi."

Kam says recognizing, learning and teaching Native Hawaiian culture can help strike a balance with the visitor industry, community and conservation. He says spreading the concept of mālama would help.

However, Kam also noted tourism is important for local families and communities.

"Tourism is everybody's business. It affects all of us, and it does so much good. But we also know it causes some pain," he told a panel.

"But I think people are missing the value. But it's not for us to tell them the value. Just look among your family or anybody — uncle, aunty, everything you're going to see — everybody is connected to tourism in some way. I mean, you could talk from the financial side," he said.

Kam says there are communities that might not want tourism. He explained that's why the HTA created and is acting on its destination management action plans — which were created by committees made up of community members on every island.

Panelists also discussed efforts to educate visitors to be better stewards on their vacation.

"The most important thing that we can do is have the shift away from the almighty dollar to what's most important to the place and the experience."
Rae DeCoito, executive director, Mālama Loko Ea Foundation

"The most important thing that we can do is have the shift away from the almighty dollar to what's most important to the place and the experience," said Rae DeCoito, executive director of the nonprofit Mālama Loko Ea Foundation.

Her organization hosts a hands-on educational program on Native Hawaiian culture and land stewardship at Loko Ea fishpond in Haleʻiwa.

DeCoito says having guests make a connection can be difficult for groups like hers — but it is worth the effort.

"I have had enough experience with the visitors, that if you really spend time with them, and you're really authentic and you explain — and it's not easy — I mean they have to get off the plane, and they have to feel it," DeCoito said.

DeCoito said organizations like hers don't have the capacity to accommodate every visitor. However, she said the visitor industry can help by recognizing these community efforts, and sending visitors "in the right frame of mind" to participate.

There were also concerns about maintaining and preserving natural resources.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has implemented reservation systems and messaging campaigns in recent years to mitigate overcrowding and bad behavior.

DLNR state parks administrator Curt Cottrell said technology will have a role in helping, but there still needs to be partnerships and support.

"Absent either us having staff, or partners, or a private sector company, checking the front door as bouncers — so to speak — it's been my experience the visitors, when they're here, they will do what they want to do," he said.

"And unless you're there to help guide them, and ensure that they follow these new regulations, they're going to do what they want to do," Cottrell said. "And so that's a key part. You can set up technology, but you still need boots on the ground."

The conference also held a panel discussing how technology can accelerate the use and fluency of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. Not just within the community, but also in the visitor industry.

Panelist Keola Donaghy said the use and understanding of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi will provide a deeper connection and understanding of the islands and Native Hawaiʻi culture.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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