How Do We Get More Tourists to the East Side of Hawaii?

It’s the wrong question.

Better question: How do we make our local economy and lifestyle sustainable?

Blogger Damon Tucker is driving the social-media bandwagon to attract tourists to Puna, so thought I’d jump on and talk story.

But first a confession–I’ve been resisting writing about this. For a couple reasons: one, it’s not really a cross-cultural topic, although in a very general sense it is about culture. (Or so I rationalized.) So here we are, kicking it around in the Intercultural Twilight Zone.

The second reason is that the more I thought about Damon’s question the more I realized how complex the issue is. To further muddy the waters, we’re in the midst of desperate times with fear and emotion clouding our better judgment. I’m still digesting the current situation, but some things are very clear to me.

I’m convinced that if we are coming from a place of desperation, if we act without a foundation of shared values, if we say yes to every opportunity even if it means unsustainable wages paid by unsustainable companies that don’t invest in our communities, then we’re just mortgaging our children’s future.

The smarter way to meet the challenge of making our communities more sustainable is to create a practical strategy based on a philosophical foundation that includes, but is not dependent on, tourism.

A “philosophy” by definition is grounded in values and assumptions. Until someone convinces me otherwise these are mine:

1) It’s never good to put all your eggs in one basket, especially tourism. Diversification is the only long-term way to make our communities sustainable and healthy.

2) Planning for long-term success is a higher quality approach than grasping for short-term benefits.

3) Our community will benefit long-term if our economy is stable and sustainable (with an emphasis on sustainability)

4) We all benefit by supporting quality companies with a stake in, and desire to contribute to our communities

5) The East Side’s “sense of place” is the essence of its value. Hence the East Side must distinguish itself from other vacation destinations by tapping into this intrinsic value.

Good Development, Bad Development

Damon says the answer is increasing tourism while reducing the number of people moving here.

I respectfully disagree. Unless we secede from the Union, there’s nothing we can do to stop people from moving to Hawaii–or to anywhere in the U.S. for that matter. The best we can hope for is controlled growth, ideally using quality or “goodness” as our guiding principle.

And this begs for a distinction between good development and bad development. The desperate person makes no distinction, and simply grabs for whatever straw is available with no forethought on the long-term consequences.

Ponder this scenario: what if we focus on increasing tourism willy-nilly but fail to control residential development? It’d be the proverbial “double-whammy”, one that would almost certainly destroy our sense of place.

Our community benefits most by striking a balance between local residential development, business (including tourism), and diversified ways to create sustainable communities.

No doubt the influx of Hawaii’s East Side residents in recent years has stretched our infrastructure. We absolutely need to get a handle on this. But let’s not delude ourselves into believing we can stop the flow of people coming. (And has anyone considered the possibility that a boon in tourism might attract even more residents to our island?)

It’s an insult to human creativity to limit ourselves to the two extreme choices of “unbridled development” or “total rejection of development”.

More than ever we need out-of-the-box thinking. We need an alternative perspective, one that assumes a respect for local culture and by extension, the a’ina, based on the values of authenticity and sustainability.

The Pono Prism

Some very wise, forward-thinking folks have been preaching sustainability and authenticity long before I got here.

About five years ago I had the opportunity to hear Peter Apo speak at a conference in Honolulu. A native Hawaiian with a view that espouses sustainability and maintaining our “sense of place”, Peter’s vision was the answer to my Japanese clients’ quest for the authentic Hawaiian experience. The value of Peter’s view is that it’s rooted in Hawaiian tradition. Here’s his take on development in an article titled Balanced Economic Growth (originally published in Hawaiian Hospitality Magazine, May 2007):

“Development, like any other economic activity, is a neutral activity–until the specific business model begins to unfold. Only then does it become clear how the development will affect the community’s sense of place and whether it will result in a quality of life step forward or backward for those who have to live in and around it.”

For a big picture perspective, Peter asks us to envision a triangle:

“At one corner write Economic Activity (in this case you can say Development). At the second corner write Place. And the third corner should say Host Community. The challenge I see is that most business models are so economic activity-centric with narrowly defined measures of success that they often succeed at the expense of the Place and the Host Community. For instance, our visitor industry business model was very lineal in its maturation process. Visitor Industry. Visitor. The model rushes to accommodate all the creature comforts of the visitor and in the process begins to change the place into looking like the place the visitor was trying to escape from. Changes to the place are in some cases so profound that entire communities undergo a dramatic “sense of place” conversion. One chilling effect is that people who work there can no longer afford to live there.”

What I admire about Peter’s take on the issue is his focus on maintaining a harmonious balance of man, place and commerce. He points out that tourism too often takes the rap for problems related to public policy–that is, any policy that would allow inappropriate development to occur.

But here’s my favorite quote from the article: “Planning and permitting processes that ask the wrong questions makes it worse not better.”

Indeed viable solutions to curbing “bad” development will continue to evade us until we start asking the right questions.

What are the right questions? Peter says to consider the “Pono Prism”. It posits five simple questions to guide decisions on determining what is “appropriate development” in Hawaii’s communities:

1) How does the activity make Hawaii a better place?
2) How does the activity create opportunities for prosperity for all segments of the community?
3) How does the activity help connect the community’s past to its future?
4) How does the activity bring dignity to the community and the people who live around it?
5) How does the activity insure that the people who live in and around it can continue to live there?

It Sounds Good in Theory, But…

Yeah it looks good on paper, but what about the real world?

We can only speak from experience. Our business operates on nearly identical guidelines and, in the midst of a serious recession, we are thriving. (And we’re proud to report that quality service providers in our community are benefiting from our good fortune as well.)

It’s worth noting that our business ethics have a strong Japanese/Confucian flavor. And that’s really what’s makes this so interesting: we share with a wise Hawaiian man, an appreciation for social harmony and the belief that businesses have a moral responsibility to contribute to the communities they serve.

Now before you accuse us of practicing selfless altruism consider our more practical business motivation: we acknowledge that, without a healthy community, our business is absolutely unsustainable. We are all connected.

Does our business model pass the Pono Prism test? You be the judge:

• We choose Quality customers over sheer numbers.

• We offer authentic experiences and educational programs through local educational institutions.

• We focus on finding customers who want to stay in Hawaii longer, and participate in educational activities.

• We encourage Japanese visitors to consider retiring here, and coach them on responsible ways to behave while they’re living in our communities.

• We seek out visitors who want to contribute to our communities.

• We source work to local service providers who provide high quality services, and keep money in our communities.

• We offer programs that add quality to the visitor/retiree experience while involving and enriching the host community.

Our products vary but our values do not. Our motives transcend tourism, indeed profits. We choose not to be dependent on tourism: we are committed to diversification. We are also committed to extending to visitors and fellow residents alike, warm hospitality with a human touch, while maintaining our community’s sense of place, and the dignity of the people who live here.

What’s the Answer?

At the risk of sounding Japanese–What’s the question?

Quality answers come to those who ask the right questions. And since everyone’s got a different situation, cookie-cutter answers just don’t cut it anyway.

What’s the answer? I think that it’s not relying on government, the HTA, or anyone else to bring business to Puna. It’s best driven by local people and businesses, stakeholders who care about the community. It’s our gig, our community, our sense of place, and I admire anyone who takes the bull by the horns and makes good things happen. (Yeah I’m talking to you, Damon.) Just understand that no good can come if we act out of desperation.

Nor can we rely on the government to regulate business in a way that reflects the values of our community, including the Pono Prism. They’d no doubt find a way to take the pono out of the prism.

No, the onus is on private businesses to look beyond the bottom line and commit to doing good things for the community; in turn, the community can do its part by supporting local, ethical businesses that practice Pono-Prism thinking.

Is tourism the magic bullet? Einstein said the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over expecting a different result. It’s time we stop the insanity. If we continue our over-reliance on tourism, the vicious cycle of boom-or-bust will continue to haunt us, and we’ll find ourselves back in the very same pickle we’re in today.

It’s a cliché but it’s true: change begins from within. As individuals we have little say in defining public policy. But we can establish and abide by personal guidelines that reflect the spirit of the Pono Prism. We can choose to spend our money at quality, local businesses rather than businesses that send profits off our island. We can choose to make smart decisions on an individual level–beginning with the choice not to put all our eggs in the tourism basket. We can choose to give opportunities to quality people in our communities in need of work. And we can gear our activities both as individuals and collectively, toward preserving the sense of place that brings value to our communities.

For more information on Peter Apo and the great work he does, check out his site at

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


21 responses to “How Do We Get More Tourists to the East Side of Hawaii?

  1. I’m not to worried about myself.

    I’m worried about my son’s possibilities of staying in Hawaii and making a living in the future.

    I’m even more worried about my grandchild’s grand children… If I ever have a grandchild.

    Great post!

  2. P.S. My drive is not just to bring tourist to Puna. I’d like them to come to all of Hawaii including neighbor islands.

    The taxes go along way no matter where they are at.

    I’d specifically like Pahoa to reap some profits of tourism simply because it’s my backyard.

  3. Aloha Tim! Superlative post. Totally agree. PBN reports Hawaii Island will be the 35th fastest growing metro area out of 250 metro areas over the next 15 years. Projected growth is 70,000 people which means growing from 163,000 to 235,000. I suspect due to vog, affordable housing a big proportion will be to East Hawaii.

  4. Mr. Frost–
    What do you totally agree with?
    Some particulars might further the discussion.

  5. Aloha Darren! Grif works better than “Mr. Frost”. Basically I agree with all of Tim’s analysis and recommendations. We need to develop a more diversified economy on the Big Island. Tourism is and will remain a key economic driver but we should focus more visitors who will stay longer, spend more and enjoy a more “natural” experience vs. the artificial visitor’s experience of the Kohala resort type. Residents who move to East Hawaii have a huge positive impact on the economy which is not properly reported in the current economic reports. Residents have a much higher multiplier effect than visitors. Like Tim I have ties to Japan and believe bringing in more visitors from Japan who later become business owners/residents (for visa purposes) will have a very positive impact on East Hawaii. This is a large ranging and fascinating topic to explore and I applaud Tim for bringing it up on his blog even though it is not specifically related to his intercultural theme. With Aloha; Grif Frost e-mail:

  6. Grif,
    Thanks for elaborating.

    If we’re discussing “sustainability” are we discussing more self-reliance in food/energy production?
    How does austerity fit in?
    What incentive does private business have for these things?
    Wouldn’t government need to be involved in issues of public health?

    Anyway, these questions are nothing new, but they are ones that I’m compelled to raise.


  7. Can’t speak for Grif, but here’s my take on your questions:

    I believe we absolutely need self-reliance in food/energy production. A vision and commitment to make the Big Island not just self-sustainable but an excess producer of food and energy for export would be ideal.

    I believe austerity will be forced on us eventually if we don’t start practicing it now. (Knowing you can be happy without a bunch a shit you don’t need is a good start.)

    The “incentive” for LOCAL private businesses to promote sustainability is long-term success within a healthy, sustainable economy. Sadly not all the players think long term. That’s why the folks have to vote with their dollars.

    Non-local businesses have no incentives really, other than lining their pockets.

    The health issue is so complex. All I can say is that the current model isn’t working and we have to try something else. Perhaps look at the Swiss model?.. they’ve got lots of money to finance it so it may not apply to our situation. I’m not sure our government could make it any better, but I’m willing to listen to new ideas because the current system is a bad joke.

  8. Aloha Tim! Actually you can speak for me as we think along similar lines (hopefully that is a compliment and not an insult).

    I have been busy writing up content for my website (LQ=Life Quality; What is your LQ?) and have been thinking about the various issues Darren brings up.

    In terms of austerity, I think we have reached a tipping point where people are beginning to realize they don’t need very much income to live an LQ Lifestyle. The key is identifying the activities/assets in their lives, rating them 1-10 in terms of how much enjoyment they get from each, then realizing that the activities we enjoy most are usually free. For example, spending time with family and friends.

    Tomorrow I am giving a “business improvement tip” to the Kona Executives Association which is bound to be controversial…to LQ your business, work less, be AOK with earning less and get rid of all the “stuff” and “activities” which cost a lot but don’t provide much ongoing enjoyment.

    As for the health system, as you say a very complex issue, but from a 35,000 foot level I think the key is getting people to be responsible for their health moving them towards preventive health….I am having my first physical in 10 years tomorrow with a Duke/Princeton trained MD who is a Qi Gong master and calls the physical a “rewiring session”. Should be interesting…

  9. The Japan Royal Couple will be visiting the Big Island for one day in July.

    Thursday July 16th.

    Knowing the way the Japanese love this couple, how given this small window of frame, if I were given the chance by the county and the government to blog about their time here… what would be the most efficient use of my blog as a tool to bring more Japanese to the Islands.

    Small window frame… Big Opportunity? Trying to negotiate some thing now.

  10. Damon,

    If you’re not blogging in the Japanese language, you won’t be able to reach too many people in Japan.

    On the other hand, if the couple says positive things about our island and it makes the news in Japan, then it could conceivably give us a bump.

    As an fyi, there is much history, decor and protocol for dealing with the Imperial Family. So much so that in Japan it’s left to the “experts” (=historical/cultural scholars who specialize in the archaic language used, special etiquette, etc. required to deal directly with the imperial family).

    Also keep in mind that the media in Japan would never print or say anything negative about the Royal Family as it would be an unforgivable breach of protocol. (Not implying you would do that, just trying to bring to your attention the sensitivity of the Japanese people toward the Imperial Family.) So…when the Royal Couple arrive, my advice is NOT to jump out of the bushes and take their picture paparazzi style. (Just pullin’ your chain, Damon 🙂

    Good luck at whatever you’re trying to negotiate!

    • Tim, my blog can be converted into many different languages by the person viewing my blog.

      Japan I believe is one of the ways.

      You are much more schooled in this though… I’m sure my blog would look like crap in Japanese.

      However, you can’t tell me there aren’t a lot of looky loo’s that love to just follow pictures of the couple.

      I’m not the type of guy to open playboy to read the articles you know. 😉

  11. Aloha Damon! Billy and Takako Kenoi will be meeting the Royal Couple…perhaps you can do a story about the American Hawaiian Mayor and his Japanese born wife meeting with the Royal Couple on the Big Island….when I was in Japan, I ended up representing my father in law at a Red Cross Charity Banquet In Aomori City where the Empress attended…I was the only white guy out of 500 Japanese so she ended up spending 3 minutes with me practicing her English which is flawless…I suspect it was a nice change up from her individually thanking 499 Japanese donors…

    If you can capture just one quote from the Royal Couple praising the Big Island (perhaps paraphrased from Takako Kenoi) then this can become news…and can help raise the positive profile of the Big Island in Japan.

    Billy and particularly Takako being able to personally meet with the Royal Couple is a HUGE DEAL.

    • I’ve sent off communication to the Mayors office as well as a few others.

      Security is an issue.

      My question… and this will go along way in the future….

      Will they allow a “Blogger” the same media credentials that they give to a “Reporter” for the newspaper being that the newspaper is controlled by corporate media.

  12. Aloha Damon! An expert is one who says he is an expert. I have always used this approach and it works. Usually I find out what my prospect thinks is an “expert” and then make sure when I submit my proposal it fulfills their “expert” requirements. I would recommend finding out what requirements they have for a “reporter” and then make sure you fulfill those requirements.

    A story from my sake days. As CEO of SakeOne Corporation I was viewed with suspicion by reporters as too “commercial” to be interviewed as an expert. I then set-up the International Sake Institute (me) and became Chairman. Suddenly I was perceived as a legit expert and interviewed hundreds of times. Type in “Grif Frost” on Goggle and you still get pages of sake interviews.

    Find out the rules, and make sure you qualify.

  13. I’m making sure! 😉

  14. How do we get more tourists……? Don’t worry too much about it.

    I agree that tourism isn’t the answer to Puna’s economic future. If we make this district a nice place for the people that live here, the tourists will come. “Nice”, to me, means a diversified, sustainable economy where much of the energy and goods we consume is produced here.

    People tend to forget that the dominant force in this district is Kilauea volcano. It both attracts visitors and limits development. While lava pours steadily into the sea in or near HVNP, the eruption has a positive effect on our local economy. That wasn’t always, and won’t always be the case. Development and property values in Puna plumeted while Kalapana was inundated in 1990. They recovered when people forgot. It’s going to happen again; Sometime, somewhere. People will move here, people will move away. Tourists will come, or not. Our underlying constant should be a stable, diversified, economy coupled with smart, limited development.

    Kilauea; The great (but often neglected) equalizer.

  15. Mr. Trolz (who apparently didn’t understand the article) wants us to know that:

    “there is no beach and no sun. tourists will not come here like you want”

    His comment is inaccurate of course: tourists are already coming here. And he’s basing his argument on the false assumption that all tourists come to Hawaii for sun, surf and sand. (I work in this industry and bring folks here all the time, so I can say with confidence that Mr. Trolz doesn’t have a clue.) So for the edification of Mr. Trolz, the point of the article was that we shouldn’t depend on tourism in our part of the islands. We have to find other ways to create value to be truly sustainable.

    Hopefully this “unconfuses” Mr. Trolz. In the future, please read the article thoroughly before posting. Mahalo in advance.

  16. I’ve been sleeping over this for a couple weeks now… and if you feel like making a new topic about something… I’m ready to make this a lively one and turn some of my readers over here.

    You have a lot to give… lets give this another rattle in another context when you have a chance.

    I’ve got a few ideas tossing around my head… but I think a bump to this thread with a new fresh take might be a good start to the discussion.

    Domo Ari Gato

    (Geez… I probably spelled that wrong but so goes it)


  17. I was thinking of doing a post on the business idea I pitched to you via email. Whaddaya think?

  18. Blue Cheese Rocket

    “It’s best driven by local people and businesses, stakeholders who care about the community. It’s our gig, our community, our sense of place…”

    This pretty much sums up why my wife and I decided to visit the area this coming September. I think your statement about putting all the eggs in one basket is spot on, as well, along with Greg’s comment. There are plenty of folks who are drawn to places off the beaten track (or, at least, not choked up with hotels, etc.)… next thing you know, there’s a beaten track running right through your back yard. And more.

    Anyway, interesting post, great blog. I assume you can see my e-mail without my posting it in the open in this comment? I’d be interested in grabbing a lunch or sharing a couple of cold ones while we’re in the area (Sept 10-15), but I’d rather not go into further detail here, as it is off-topic, etc.. 宜しかったら、ご連絡下さい。

    Keep up the good work.

  19. Blue Cheese Rocket,
    Thanks for commenting and also for your kind words. I sent you an email privately.

    With warm Aloha.


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