What image comes to mind when you picture a tourist? Sunburned Mainlanders driving too slowly in bright-colored convertibles? Maybe visitors from Asia snapping photos? It's no accident that these are the first things that come to mind.
The first concerted efforts to attract tourists started just a few years after the islands became a territory. A group of local businesses pooled some funds together to hire a promoter to head to the Mainland. The promoter traveled for six months conducting lectures about Hawaii and had a slideshow depicting the scenery and people of the islands.
This group eventually formed the Hawaii Promotion Committee and started seeking funds from a variety of sources. The committee was headed by the infamous Lorrin Thurston - an ultraconservative kamaaina who was pivotal in the overthrow of the monarchy. In 1902, the territorial government gave $15,000 to the committee to advertise the islands in far-off places like California.
The government has had a hand in attracting visitors ever since. During the territorial days, most of the advertising was focused on bringing in Mainlanders. Tourists on their way to the West Coast would go a little farther west aboard a luxury liner. And you didn't need a great volume of visitors either. If you could afford to board a luxury liner and stay at a hotel for months on end, you probably spent a great deal of money everywhere you went.
The Hawaii Promotion Committee evolved into the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which now works alongside the state's own agency, the Hawaii Tourism Authority. These organizations are constantly on the lookout for new places to bring in big-spending tourists.
They turned their focus to Asia sometime in the late 1970s. Since then, the Japanese tourist has become part of Waikiki's landscape. It was no secret that our economy is inextricably linked to the strength of the spending habits of Asian vacationers.
The tourism industry is constantly on the lookout for lucrative places to attract visitors. The state regularly sends hula dancers and representatives to places like Australia, China and South Korea. Governors and mayors visit cities to personally promote our state.
By the 1990s, the backlash toward the tourism industry was everywhere. Critics time and time again lamented that Hawaii's brand of tourism fostered low-skill jobs for the local population while executives and managers were shipped in from elsewhere. The industry turned the islands into a playground for the rich while the residents struggled in low-wage jobs just to stay above water.
The criticism stemmed from the kind of tourist we've cultivated for more than a century, which is only one kind of visitor. The industry and the government have always been focused on the big spender or the passive tourist that sips cocktails by a hotel pool.
There are other kinds of visitors out there. Hawaii manages to attract backpackers, sports enthusiasts and the nature lovers who either don't have the money or desire to stay at a spa or lounge at a resort. The question is whether the industry does anything to cultivate these kinds of visitors.
When I was growing up, I remember meeting folks from all over the world at places like Kanaha Beach Park. They came from Italy, Argentina and Brazil for the waves and the windsurfing. Their money went more toward small businesses, grocery stores and smaller restaurants instead of big hotels, fancy eateries and tourist traps. They weren't staying at resorts on the south or west sides of the island. Many even planted roots here and stopped becoming tourists altogether and have become part of our community.
It always struck me as odd that these visitors were ignored. It did not seem like the visitor industry or the government did anything to attract or promote windsurfers in the 1980s and '90s. The attraction to the best beaches in the world came from the surf magazines and surf companies themselves.
Nowadays, cyclists come from all over the world to ride on our highways and enjoy the scenery from a bicycle seat rather than an air-conditioned bus. There are campers who would much rather stay in cabins than a hotel suite. They stay in hostels, small rental units or even local farms.
These visitors would rather see funds go toward improving roads, beach parks and places that residents enjoy too. Surely the locally owned bike shops and surf stores wouldn't mind the kind of support that hotels and airline industries have enjoyed for more than a century.
And yet, it seems like nobody is all that interested in attracting these kinds of visitors in the same way we aggressively go after the more traditional visitor. Perhaps it's time to change that and rethink what it means to be a tourist.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."