50 Years of Aloha

When Hawaii became a state only 250,000 visitors arrived that year

By: By Marty Wentzel

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Twenty-five years ago, when I wrote about Hawaii tourism on my electric typewriter, the visitor industry was in full bloom. Mega-resorts were popping up around the islands and jets were crisscrossing the pacific, carrying more and more visitors to one of the most secluded places on earth.

Now, rewind another 25 years to 1959, when Hawaii became a state, and you get a different vacation destination altogether. Only 250,000 visitors arrived that year — compared to nearly 7 million in 2008.

A snorkeler on Hawaii // (c) 2009

A snorkeler on Hawaii

In anticipation of Hawaii’s 50th anniversary of statehood on Aug. 17, I asked longtime industry leaders to lend some perspective on the state’s tourism evolution.

One of the legends of Hawaii tourism is Outrigger Enterprises’ chairman Richard Kelley. In 1947, he folded towels and manned the desk at his parents’ Islander Hotel, a five-story Waikiki walk-up where rooms ran $7.50 a night.

“Back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, most hotels were owned and/or operated by local families like mine,” Kelley said. “Since statehood, we’ve become an international destination, with the hotel business primarily controlled by major mainland firms.”

Business in the old days was done face-to-face, added Hawaii Tourism Authority vice president David Uchiyama.

“We made decisions based on the trust we put in our relationships,” Uchiyama said. “Now ... revenue and yield drive most of the decisions.”

Ken Johnston started as a Waikiki beach boy in 1938 and retired from the helm of the Big Island Visitors Bureau in 2000. He said 1959 was significant not only because Hawaii became a state but because it was the start of the jet age, with 707s and DC-8s introduced by 1960.

“[After statehood], group charters started rising,” said Johnston. “Limos gave way to motorcoaches,
hotel accommodations were off the chart and attractions and activities were growing incredibly. Leading Hawaiian companies were diversifying from sugar and pineapple and developing large chunks of their lands into resorts. This was when we saw Hawaii’s visitor industry change from class to mass.”

Aston Hotels & Resorts vice president Shari Chang, who entered the industry in 1970 as a TWA sales representative, said organized group travel was the norm back in the ’70s and ’80s.

“As the custom FIT itinerary evolved, visitors started exploring the islands the way they wanted to,” said Chang. “This opened up more opportunities for a variety of small businesses to target different niche travelers.”

As a teen in the 1970s, Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa general manager Chip Bahouth bussed dishes in Waikiki.

“In the beginning of the boom, Hawaii had a magical lure,” said Bahouth. “The islands were exotic, where people only dreamed about visiting. With more resorts and flights, the destination seemed increasingly obtainable.”

Travel agents, too, have witnessed a sea of changes in Hawaii over the decades. Warren Bartlett of Donato World Travel, in Clayton, Calif., found himself in Honolulu on statehood day in 1959.

“It took nine-and-a-half hours to fly from Los Angeles to Honolulu in a DC-6,” said Bartlett. “In those days, every person arriving from the mainland received a free flower lei. That didn’t last long.”

When Susan Tanzman, of Martin’s Travel in Los Angeles, started selling the islands in 1973, she pitched Hawaii as solely a beach vacation.

“Back then, I’d simply book clients on a sunset cruise and find them a hotel in Waikiki,” Tanzman said. “Now, I talk with clients about all the creative opportunities Hawaii offers for interacting with locals and learning about their way of life on all the islands.”

Freckles Smith, whose parents launched river trips to Kauai’s Fern Grotto in 1946, agreed that the future of Hawaii tourism is in sharing memorable island experiences.

“To protect the Hawaii visitor industry, we need to ensure that the host culture is placed at the forefront of every visitor experience,” said Smith.

Ken Johnston pointed out that while Hawaii tourism has advanced tremendously in 50 years, the one thing that hasn’t changed is its resilience.

“We’ve gone through good times and bad, from acts of terror to economic downturns, and we’ve always had this great ability to bounce back,” he said. “Still, one threat to the future of Hawaii tourism is our own success. If we’re not careful, we’ll negatively impact our product. We have to be cautious in how we grow.”

Looking ahead, Hawaii tourism liaison Marsha Wienert predicted that the visitor industry will maintain its importance to the state’s economy in the decades to come.

“Hawaii is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures and, because of our diversity, we will be able to strengthen our relationships with the developing travel markets out of Asia,” Wienert said. “But the constant will always be the Hawaiian culture and our aloha spirit.”