Landscapes and flora that don’t exist in Hawaii. Native women positioned as exotic objects, primed for pursuit. Pineapples played up and sold as endemic fruit. Grass skirts and surfing.

This is the way Hawaii was portrayed to tourists throughout much of the 20th century, and a big reason why outsiders’ perception of Hawaii has been flawed for so long, according to the “Unreal: Hawai’i In The Popular Imagination” exhibit at the Bishop Museum that runs through Jan. 27.

The temporary exhibit is a large collection of old print advertisements, many from the 1920s through the 1960s, issued by various organizations who had a hand in selling Hawaii to potential visitors on the mainland: shipping companies like Matson, airlines like United, businesses like Dole, hotels like the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana, magazines like the New Yorker, and government agencies like the Hawaii Tourist Bureau. 

By showcasing the colorful, sometimes eye-popping advertisements side-by-side, “Unreal” seeks to point out the cumulative and lasting toll that early tourism marketing took on Hawaii’s identity.

Bishop Museum Unreal show display Hawaii1.

Bishop Museum’s “Unreal” exhibit showcases advertisements, most from the early to mid-1900s, put out by airlines, shipping companies, hotels, government agencies and magazines. In many ads, the hula  is portrayed as an alluring dance for visitors rather than an important cultural performance.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Unreal impressions of Hawaii have fed Western popular imagination since the 1880s, largely through advertising’s sale and commodification of the idea of Hawaii,” the exhibit’s description explains. “The global success of these advertising efforts lured people into a false familiarity. Hula dancers and surfers, palm trees and glowing sunsets — these are the popular depictions of the supposedly harmless daydreams of paradise.”

Though the content of “Unreal” might make one cringe at times, there is a silver lining. The main message is not one of lost cause. Instead, the exhibit hopes to serve as a point of reflection and as a way to change the narrative going forward.

“In this show what we really wanted to showcase is the difference between the perspective from how people from outside look at Hawaii versus how people from Hawaii see Hawaii,” said Bishop Museum Cultural Advisor Marques Marzan. “With more people having a rich and grounded and full understanding of what Hawaii is (in the future), I think it will definitely mold the way it’s being presented to the world.”


In 2018, for a myriad of reasons that include the invention of the internet, the cultural renaissance, and the determination of a new generation, the way Hawaii is being portrayed, both from the inside and the outside, is changing.

And because of that, many involved in the tourism industry, from cultural practitioners to marketing professionals, see the content of “Unreal” not as a reason to hang their heads, but as a reason to celebrate.

Early Marketing Strategies

Walking into the special exhibit hall at the Bishop Museum, one is greeted by a stunning collage of color. The individual advertisements are blown up to the size of posters and joined together to create bold strips of wallpaper that cover the back and side walls. In the center of the room is a kiosk with paperback novels, magazines, and trinkets that span the decades.

Around the perimeter of the room are about a dozen framed advertisements that have been singled out to show the main themes at work in the early promotion of Hawaii. Each has a plaque with descriptions and analysis of how true culture and identity took a backseat to popular imagination.

For example, a brochure put out by United Airlines in 1968 entitled “Hawaiian for the Malihini” provides a look at how the olelo Hawaii was treated as a promotional tool, as something that existed strictly in the past, in “old Hawaiʻi,” rather than as a legitimate language.

“English is the language of Hawai’i… but don’t be surprised to discover that island speech is liberally spiced with colorful words from the musical language of old Hawai’i,” the brochure ensures its readers.

More than one of the featured advertisements are examples of how Hawaiian women were marketed to Western men as exotic objects and targets of lustful desire in the early stages of tourism. Postcard illustrations from 1910 called “Hawaiian Views” featured a native Hawaiian woman with an expression of longing on her face, meant to recall “the fleeting romance between native women and visiting men, who eventually must return to their rightful (civilized) lovers and homes.”

Bishop Museum Unreal show display Hawaii.

Many advertisements and magazines portrayed Hawaiian women as objects of fantasy for visiting men.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Then there’s the complete fabrication of local cuisine. Dole’s “Royal Hawaiian Pineapple Split” ad from 1960 shows the shameless commercial rebranding of the pineapple as a native Hawaiian fruit, resulting in the displacement of Hawaii’s true native foods, such as kalo, and a conjured identity that still exists today (think “Hawaiian-style pizza”).

Frank Haas, former vice president of marketing at the Hawaii Tourism Authority and president of Marketing Management, Inc.,  says that these advertisements reflected the state of tourism and marketing of the times.

The idea of a tourism industry was new in Hawaii, and the philosophy was simply to entice people to come, or to “get heads in beds,” as the old marketing saying goes. The focus was entirely on what they thought the visitor wanted, instead of what Hawaii was as a place.

The Difference a Generation Makes

Bishop Museum Cultural Advisor Marques Marzan agrees with that assessment, yet he makes one thing clear: While these advertisements might be “nostalgia” or “how it was” to some generations, their characterization of Hawaii has become unacceptable to other generations — including his.

The generations of the early 20th century lived at a time when Hawaiian culture was pushed underground, but the grassroots cultural renaissance of the 1970s and ’80s changed everything. Future generations were born into an era of cultural pride, paving the way for great change.

But it would take time.

The first major intersection of culture and tourism didn’t take place until 1994, when a Native Hawaiian activist and historian named George Kanahele issued a report, “Restoring Hawaiianess to Waikiki,” that gave 143 recommendations about how to reinstate culture to the state’s largest tourism destination. In it, he coined the now-iconic idea of creating a “sense of place” that is often used in cultural work. At the time, the paper prompted little action.

Bishop Museum Unreal show wide1.

A collection of advertisements has been turned into wallpaper and spans multiple walls at the Bishop Museum’s special “Unreal” exhibit.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But a few years later in 1997, Kanahele teamed up with another practitioner, Kenneth Brown, and created the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA), an organization designed “to address concerns about how Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture were perceived and represented in tourism.”

“The revitalization of Hawaiian language, the arts, and hula that happened in the 70s and 80s provided a stark contrast to the shallow experience the tourism industry was providing at that time, and it provided the coordinates of where we need to get to,” said John De Fries, interim executive director of NaHHA and president of Native Sun Business Group Inc.

“Both (Dr. Kanahele and Mr. Brown) felt that tourism built upon the foundation of cultural Hawaiian values… would serve as a platform for cross cultural exchange in the world.”

NaHHA grew quickly by forming alliances with various tourism organizations, cultural practitioners, and private businesses, and it conducted research, started hospitality training programs, and provided support for cultural projects.

Bishop Museum Unreal show display Hawaii11.

Hula costume of Pualani Mossman Avon circa 1937-1955. During this time, hula and its costuming changed dramatically toward glamour and a “Hollywood” feel.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There was one organization in particular that would prove to be a key partner for NaHHA. In 1998, the Hawaii Tourism Authority was formed by the Legislature to oversee tourism throughout the state. NaHHA exerted its influence early and often, and as a result of its efforts in those early years, the group was brought on as a consultant for HTA, specifically to implement the cultural component of its Tourism Strategic Plan 2005-2015.

Viewed now as a monumental turning point, it marked the first time a government agency had specifically incorporated culture into its long-term tourism plan.

About the same time, the internet was changing tourism marketing everywhere.

The rise of social networks allowed for specific, targeted advertisements aimed at smaller segments of the market: adventure, culinary, culture and ecotourism, to name a few.

A new era of tourism was beginning to unfold.

Age Of The Ambassador

As Hawaii transformed how it presented itself on the world stage via the internet, it also changed how it executed things on the ground here at home. The next decade (2005-2015) saw unprecedented cultural growth within the tourism industry as both locals and guests developed a new hunger for the “real” Hawaii.

With the culturally minded Gen Xers and millennials all grown up and engrained within various segments of the tourism industry – marketing, advertising, hotel management, business ownership – real change began taking place.

Bishop Museum Unreal show display Hawaii.

Though their bold colors and designs give them an uplifting feel, the messages behind the advertisements gave outsiders a narrow view of Hawaii.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Cultural positions within government agencies, like the HTA and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, and within private businesses, like hotels, emerged for the first time. (The HTA and the HVCB declined to be interviewed for the story.)

Among the most influential positions created is the “cultural ambassador” or “cultural advisor.” Most often found at large organizations like hotels, the position’s purpose is to guide how culture is manifested. How can a hotel incorporate Hawaiian values into its design and programming? What activities should be offered? What can be done to overcome stereotypes?

Such are the challenges faced by practitioners like Kainoa Horcajo, cultural ambassador at the Grand Wailea Resort in Maui. In the past, big resorts were designed as an escape from reality. Now, his job is to remind people that they are in Hawaii, a real place with real people.

“Our generation grew up thinking of marketing as a dirty word, that you were being sold something on QVC, and you’d walk away with buyer’s remorse,” Horcajo said.

“But I think we’re entering a new era that can appeal to these universal principles that we all have, the desire for connection, the desire for something real, and the idea that this real connection can come from a place that really honors our home, honors these islands, honors the intelligence of the guests that come here,” he said. “One that recognizes that they are smart people who don’t want a fake show, who want to be given the real thing.”

In 2018, the evidence of culture’s increased importance is pleasantly obvious – there are infinitely more opportunities for visitors to experience it than ever before. Fishponds are being restored and offering tours; local farms are opening up to visitors; historical programming and signage is increasing; the Hawaiian language is being used in earnest; hotel employees are more culturally aligned; local food is actually local food; and the idea of a culturally based tourism strategy has transcended from a grassroots movement to a governmental priority, at least in part.

A new era of tourism “recognizes that there are smart people who don’t want a fake show, who want to be given the real thing.” — Kainoa Horcajo, cultural ambassador at the Grand Wailea Resort, Maui.

No one will say the job is done. No one will say it’s even close. In fact, Horcajo is working toward an era when his position is no longer needed – when the idea of cultural implementation is standard protocol, when everyone in the business “gets it” from top to bottom and an “advisor” is not necessary.

But for now, Unreal” prompts us to pause and take a breath, so we can see how far we’ve come, and once again consider where we want to go next.

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