Peter Apo: A Different Model For Hawaii Tourism Based On Community - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city’s director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.


The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s new leadership team, led by John De Fries, has dramatically raised the bar in addressing the public pushback to Hawaii’s long-standing visitor industry model.

The dramatic decline in visitor arrivals in 2020-2021 caused by the Covid-19 crisis provided an opportunity for HTA to hit the reset button on what more than a few residents feel has become a stifling, wallet-driven industry, from which there seems to be no relief for Hawaii’s people.

Recently, HTA hosted its first online public review of progress being made in developing Destination Management Action Plans (DMAPS) for Kauai, Oahu, Hawaii island and Maui Nui (Maui, Molokai, Lanai).  HTA’s planning model reaches out to each of Hawaii’s counties and their respective visitor bureaus in a partnership that provides opportunity for each island to shape its own tourism destiny.

I assume that an important HTA objective is to allow each destination the opportunity to create its own DMAP from bottom up rather than top down.

HTA’s Strategic Plan 2020-2025 states that “destination management includes attracting and educating responsible visitors; advocating for solutions to overcrowded attractions, overtaxed infrastructure, and other tourism-related problems; and working with other responsible agencies to improve natural and cultural assets valued by both Hawai‘i residents and visitors.”

I believe HTA is on the right track with the DMAP initiative specific to each island – and hopefully it will eventually evolve to a level of sophistication that can be applied to each island’s individual communities.

Defining Community-Based Tourism

The HTA website labels the Destination Management Action Planning initiative as a Community-Based Tourism Program. It’s important to note that the word “community” can be invoked to refer to a whole island, a geopolitical subdistrict of the island, or a town somewhere on the island. I would define community as towns such as Waianae, Kailua, Kapolei, Kaneohe, Haleiwa, Lahaina, Hanalei, Wailuku and so forth.

A view of Waikiki Beach with Royal Hawaiian Hotel during a recent surge in Covid-19 cases. August 22, 2021
The Covid-19 crisis gave the Hawaii Tourism Authority a chance to reset. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Community-based tourism is on a smaller scale that springs directly out of a community deciding first, the degree to which it is willing to share itself with tourists — if at all — and secondly, on what terms.

Community-based tourism should not be imposed from outside. Hawaii has a love-hate relationship with tourism because the business model that hovers over the islands like a long shadow too often succeeds at the expense of the places and people it touches in what seems like an unequal exchange of value.

Community-based tourism is a mix of experiences created and operated by local, traditional or indigenous populations to enhance their quality of life. It also seeks to protect and restore their environmental and cultural assets and engage visitors on terms defined by the community.

The business model often includes walking tours, cultural performances, food, storefront museums, recreation programs, craft cooperatives, nature and wildlife treks, lectures on local culture and history, storytelling and healing and health services. It includes just about any aspect of community-driven experiences carried out by people who live there, which is what gives the experience value.

The very nature of community-based tourism places boundaries and limitations on how many visitors can be accommodated so that the sense of place is not overwhelmed and the ratio between the local population and the visitor count remains in balance.

For Hawaii, community-based tourism would be a more sustainable business model. Large-scale tourism models, driven mostly from outside the target community by third-party purveyors of the industry, often result in creating more problems for a community than they solve.

Some of Hawaii’s experiences have been particularly damaging to the culture, traditions and customs of a community and its sense of place. Community-based tourism is about forging a more direct connection between the place, the people who live there and the visitor.

Community tourism invites far more intimacy between host and guest than afforded by other tourism business models. It features far more authentic activity for the guest, because it is activity that exists for its own sake and is not constructed specifically to entertain a stranger. It is more about a community sharing its real culture than third-party entertainment.

The Ho’okaulike Triangle

George Kanahele was a great Hawaiian visionary and mentor of mine. He and another Hawaiian visionary, Kenny Brown, founded the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA) before there was an HTA.

NaHHA is playing a pivotal role in today’s tourism dialogue. While leading NaHHA, George put forth a tourism management concept he defined as the Guest-Host-Place model. The guest means the visitor. The host is the people who live in the place. The place is the destination.

Community-based tourism is about forging a more direct connection between the place, the people who live there and the visitor.

George expressed his Guest-Host-Place model graphically as an even-sided triangle. The three points are alternately marked Guest, Host and Place. In the center of the triangle the word Ho’okaulike, which means “to balance evenly,” is boldly printed.

His model prescribes that “benefits” of the tourism experience need to be evenly distributed to each point of the triangle – the visitor, the people who live there, and the place being visited.

By the way, the word “benefits” is not limited to the almighty dollar. Visitor behavior is among a number of important variables that can be played out as a benefit or a curse – same for impact on the environment.  HTA already has a long list. It would be interesting to see if a benefits distribution chart could actually be designed to bring life to George’s Ho’okaulike model.

Connecting The Past To The Future

Community-based tourism is a community celebrating its own greatness and inviting strangers to join the celebration. While it is about preserving heritage, it is also about the evolution of a heritage.

It need not freeze landscapes or cultural practices and traditions. It is about honoring the past and connecting it to the future in a dynamic evolution of the living culture of the local population — celebrating where they came from, defining who they are and crafting new dreams that bring them into the future.

In the end, community tourism is about preserving the dignity of a people willing to open their hearts to strangers from other places. Imua.


Read this next:

To Leave Hawaii And Yet Not Forget


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About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city’s director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.


Latest Comments (0)

Great article. I work as a private tour guide taking small groups around the island. All along our route I have made friends with local family businesses, eateries, etc. We feed thousands of dollars to the local economy. I do not go to overcrowded places or participate in anything that would degrade Hawaii. I respect everyone’s space (a local on a day off for example), we treat nature and any animal encounter with deep wonder and correct behavior.    I have a degree in Pacific Island Studies from UH. Hawaii is my home. The visitors on my van are thrilled to see Hawaii with a local guide and deeply care about Hawaii and it’s people in general, especially after spending a day with me.    I have so many win-win community ideas. One idea is if the farmers in Waimanalo would like to have an open market in the shopping center there, visitors wanting an authentic experience would love to stop there, farmers would make money, and locals can buy needed produce.    I have so many ideas but can’t do them as it is now illegal for us to stop at any beach or park from Makapuu to Kahuluu, and a new law is now trying to make the north shore a crime to let any guide show any visitor any beach. 

Greg · 1 month ago

Don't blame the Visitors.  It is our house.  We are the hosts. If the Visitors are behaving badly, it is our fault.  First, stop the greed.  Stop all illegal places to sleep.  Get the Visitors into beds that we want them to be in.Second, stop the stupidity.  If Instagram and social media are showing our house badly, we must find a way to intervene.Next, we must improve our "Leisure Education" abilities.  Leisure Education is how we interpret our house to our guests.  Leisure Education is an expert field taught by experts like the National Parks.How do we greet, educate, teach,  inspire our guests.  We need to learn how to do this.  It is through this interpretation that we can upgrade our Visitors experience of our land, sea, history, plants, etc.Then the Visitors go home with understanding and not just digital images.There is no leader of our Visitor Industry - it has many leaders.  

Pukele · 1 month ago

Peter Apo's essay is both thoughtful and thought-provoking.  His triangular model of the relations among place, guest and host answers the question:  why are we different from the Virgin Islands or the Seychelles? There are a lot of people who come to visit us every year because of the happy memories they have of the place, and happy relations they've developed with their hosts -- whether it's a family they stay with, a concierge in a new upscale resort, or a waitress at a three story walk up Waikiki hotel built in the 1960s.  The words, "Aloha, welcome back" can mean so much to them.  Visitors, especially repeat visitors, are our lifeblood, and our relationships with them will sustain us, as we sustain them, and we both sustain the beauty of this place we share.

Andy · 1 month ago

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