Recently, I was amazed to learn that tourism accounts for more than 80 percent of our county's economic activity. According to the Maui County General Plan, the visitor industry provides 75 percent of all private sector jobs on Maui.
I don't know what the industry employment statistics were in the 1960s, but I'd be willing to bet that it was a lot closer to 25 percent back then. When I was a child, a bus filled with tourists was a rare and welcome sight. Whenever we'd pass one on Iao Valley Road or Honoapiilani Highway, I'd wave excitedly at the passengers from my car window, and cheer when they'd wave back.
My, how times have changed. Nowadays, the gestures exchanged between local drivers and visitors' vehicles are a bit more . . . forceful, shall we say? My late husband was pretty generous with the one-finger salute and other hand signals that aren't found in the Hawaii driver's manual. To be fair, he didn't particularly dislike tourists; it's just that they were usually the ones committing his pet peeve: failing to pull over when two or more cars are stacked up behind.
Up until a year ago, seeing tourists in traffic was pretty much the extent of my contact with them. I had never worked in the visitor industry directly, unless you count the time when my cousin and I, at the age of 6 or 7, appointed ourselves greeters at the Bailey House Museum. We made lei from the Singapore plumerias in his Wailuku yard, trekked up the hill to the historic home, which was called Hale Hoikeike at the time, and sold them to tourists for 50 cents each. For a dollar more, we'd personally guide them through the museum.
These days, I take visitors on virtual tours of ancient Hawaii as well as the major island groups of the Pacific. Aboard the NCL Pride of America, docked at Kahului Harbor, I am "the lovely Kalena," hostess of Malu Productions' "Aloha Polynesia." With two shows every Sunday night, I get to interact with visitors from all over the world. During our post-performance meet-and-greet sessions and our dinner breaks between shows, I enjoy chatting with the cruise ship passengers, most of whom are visiting Hawaii for the first time.
On Friday evenings, at the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, I get even more up close and personal with our guests, doing an intimate hour of storytelling under the stars at the Puu Olai fire pit. The audience is usually composed of eight to a dozen adults, so it's more of a cultural sharing than kiddie story time. Many of them are repeat visitors who started as snowbirds nesting at the Maui Prince. We often end up lingering for another half-hour after the session, talking story like old friends.
Last weekend, during my annual staycation at the fabulous Grand Wailea, it occurred to me that, even though I was technically not working, I was still on duty as an ambassador of aloha. Talking with a couple from Florida, I was reminded of my last visit to Disney World and a brief conversation with a resort employee, comparing notes on living and working in a visitor-driven economy. My son thought it must be pretty cool to be a working resident of the Magic Kingdom, a member of the Mickey Mouse family. The bellboy replied, "Yeah, we all work for the rat. It's only fun for people like you, tourists. Soon as I can, I'm moving far away, someplace where there's no tourists."
The brief exchange left us feeling a little sorry for the guy, and sorrier for the folks who would encounter his jaded attitude. I guess resentment is an occupational hazard of the service industry, especially in high-end destination areas. But I couldn't help thinking then, and now, that the bellboy's attitude was misguided. I suppose I might feel differently if I spent eight hours a day, every day, lugging suitcases for folks who are having more fun - and, obviously, more money - than I.
Still, at the Grand Wailea and the Makena Resort, I see sincere warmth and hospitality in each employee, even those whose job it is to clean up the mess that others leave. I've seen the same friendly spirit all over our island, from Ka'anapali Beach Hotel to the Maui Seaside. Maybe it's due to corporate training, but I like to think that it's because most Mauians feel as I do, that it's a privilege and a pleasure to share our home, our history, our culture, with folks from all over the world.
I just wish those folks would learn how to pull over.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.