Indigenous tourism can lead to Native Hawaiian prosperity


When Hawaii became a state in 1959, residents outnumbered tourists by about 2-to-1. Today, tourists outnumber residents by 6-to-1 and they outnumber Native Hawaiians by 30-to-1. Last year, tourists spent $15.6 billion in Hawaii, but much of that money left the islands to enrich multinational corporate coffers offshore.

While tourism offers jobs and opportunity, it also brings unwelcome consequences. At one time our small hotels, restaurants and activities businesses were owned by Hawaii people. Decades of global mergers and acquisitions have slowly moved us out of the host role and into the servant role. Industrial-scale tourism’s socioeconomic and cultural impacts to kamaaina are real, but an unpopular topic because tourism is our 800-pound gorilla.

With the recent, rapid decline of Maui’s agricultural sector, our island-born youth have fewer and fewer employment options for their future. They can work for local government, work in tourism-related service jobs or they can leave.

Increasingly, Native Hawaiians are leaving, not by choice, but as economic refugees forced from their homeland to search for better conditions overseas. It is increasingly possible that one day there could be a Hawaii without Hawaiians.

The Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce believes that Native Hawaiians can, and should, benefit abundantly from tourism — if they so choose. Destinations like New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Canada profit substantially from native tourism, an emerging travel segment that attracts a new kind of visitor.

Native tourism is among the travel sectors showing highest international growth, with a 15 percent annual growth rate that constitutes 37 percent of all world travel (Sustainable Tourism Online, 2010). In fact, visitors looking for environmentally friendly and culturally distinctive destinations are eager to spend more for these unique experiences.

Last year, our own U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz demonstrated leadership in this area by sponsoring the NATIVE Act (Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience Act) that provides federal funding for Native American tribes, Native Alaskan tribal organizations and Native Hawaiian organizations to help share their stories, languages and cultures with visitors.

The Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce believes the NATIVE Act offers a rich opportunity for a new generation of Hawaiians to thrive at home while pioneering this promising new travel segment. That’s why we invited Schatz to be our keynote speaker for our 11th annual Business Fest at the King Kamehameha Golf Club on Oct. 11. He will be joined by state Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, a Native Hawaiian whose district includes Waikiki, and indigenous tourism experts of Native Alaskan, Native American and Native Hawaiian ancestry.

Native or indigenous tourism means different things to different people. We define it as a tourism enterprise in which native people benefit directly through ownership, management and/or control of their own cultural assets.

Through conference scholarships for select high school students, we seek to plant a seed from which native-led tourism businesses will grow on Maui. Our expert speakers will share a vision for new kinds of lodging, dining, cultural and educational experiences designed, owned and operated by Native Hawaiians and staffed by those who live in harmony with indigenous values.

We encourage everyone who cares about tourism and the future of these islands to attend this important conference because a Hawaii without Hawaiians would be an unspeakable tragedy.

* Teri Freitas Gorman is a fourth-generation Maui girl of Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. She is president of the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce. For more information, visit