Of all domestic destinations, perhaps none has changed for America as much as Hawaii in the last 80 years. In fact, 80 years ago, Hawaii was just an outlying territory that took days to reach.
Today, just over 50 years after it became the 50th state, the islands, while still an exotic and remote destination, are more reachable than ever before.
“Transportation is key to the destination,” says David Uchiyama, vice president, tourism marketing, at the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Since the jet age first made travel to Hawaii easier, the islands have depended on where planes can land and how comfortably visitors can reach their destination. “We had a huge hub and a spoke-type transport network where everyone came into Oahu, and then to neighboring islands,” explains Uchiyama. “Now, people can fly directly to the islands, which is huge.” On the international side, he acknowledges, the airports still work in the hub-and-spoke model for clearing customs and transferring, but he anticipates that international travel will come to all of the islands soon.
“We have seen ourselves, as a destination, mature with our travelers,” Uchiyama says. “People have fallen in love with the islands, and they come back. Some come back several times, and then they think that they’ve been there, done that…Where they thought experiencing the destination was experiencing Oahu, now they see that each island has its own personality.” Maui has become popular, he adds, and the Big Island’s volcanoes and Kauai’s greenery have also attracted tourists.”
Uchiyama credits the growth to Hawaii’s place in pop culture and TV programs like Hawaii 5-0, Magnum, P.I. and Baywatch Hawaii made them popular. “All of those introduced Hawaii to the viewers and attracted them to the islands,” he says. “That was a huge impact for cultivating the destination.”
Another game-changer was the arrival of large hotel chains. “We had more locally and family-owned hotel products,” recalls Uchiyama. “That’s evolved into larger brand hotels.” The brands brought a new sophistication to the hospitality industry, he adds, and a new level of service, which fits in well with the overall Aloha Spirit of Hawaii, but the two are very different things.
“The Aloha Spirit is not service,” he emphasizes. “It’s welcoming. It’s very accommodating. It’s sharing. It’s openness. It goes back to host culture and philosophy: We’re all part of the Earth, and the make-up of the population here is a reflection of that openness. Nowhere else will you see a mix of nationalities like we have in Hawaii.” Combining all of those elements, he says, is what differentiates Hawaii as a destination. “It’s like a booster to service level.”
While plenty has changed in 80 years, some aspects of the islands seem permanent, says Uchiyama. “We’re conscious of host culture, and core values, and how that differentiates us.” Many destinations have sun, sand and surf, he adds, but those values—combined with Hawaii’s unique ecosystem and status within the American domestic market—ensures visitors keep coming.
The Hotel Scene
Kelly Hoen, general manager, The Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki, tells the story of a woman who has visited the hotel every year since it opened in 1927.When it reopened following renovations in 2009, she returned to share her memories of the property. The biggest change, she noted, was that when the hotel was first built, it didn’t need air conditioning because breezes from the mountains would flow through to keep it cool. As Waikiki developed and skyscrapers bloomed, the winds were blocked, and the hotel had to invest in air conditioning.
Along with the Moana Surfrider (which opened in 1901), The Royal Hawaiian has been a steady presence in Waikiki’s development for decades, and in the development of Hawaii as a destination. During the six-month, multimillion-dollar renovation from late 2008 to early 2009, Rob Iopa, a Big Island architect from WCIT Architecture, was hired to recreate the building and blend its history with modern tastes. Interior Designer Marion Philpotts created the public spaces and the guest rooms in the historical wing, including plenty of nods to the past with wallpapers and furnishings.
Hoen feels that a notable recent change for The Royal Hawaiian has been an increase in the hotel’s international clientele. She credits this to the hotel’s affiliation with Starwood’s Luxury Collection. “There’s a broader reach that we’re anticipating,” she says. When asked what she feels guests want now that is different from years past, she says: “What they’re looking for is a unique experience.” While beaches and sunbathing can be great, she adds quickly, Hawaii has much more to offer, and today’s visitors are eager to try the full range of experiences.
“I think there was a point in time when we talked about sharing the experience of Hawaiian culture, but I don’t know that we were delivering on that promise,” muses Hoen. “From my experience here, I’ve never seen it resonate so much in all of the hotels and resorts across the state as I do today. We did great fun-and-sun in the 1970s and 1980s, and we did have good experiences from a cultural perspective, but they weren’t as rich or resonant as they are today.”
Ultimately, she says, the expectations of luxury guests have not changed much over the years: “They’re looking for their needs to be [met]!”