Hawaii visitors, the media, and money

“Disappointingly crass is the media obsession with money. Whenever a large group of visitors arrives in the islands, the news stories are not about their hopes and dreams or what they came to see or do, but about how much money each group brings in,” wrote college teacher, administrator, and founder of Kalamaku Press Dennis Kawaharada in his book, “Local Geography: Essays on Multicultural Hawaii” (2004).

Eight years later, not much has changed.

Every month, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reports visitor statistics, focusing on arrivals (number of visitors, length of stay, air seats) and expenditures (total spending, daily spending, trip spending).

This research is important for hotels, airlines, and businesses. It helps companies forecast business, inventory, and employees. And it feels great when we hear that our local economy is doing well.

But the focus on visitor spending and “economic benefit” has overtaken the local news reports too. Recent headlines in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser read: “Hawaii hotels hit midyear with record revenue: the lodging industry brings in $1.6 billion with Oahu and Maui leading the way” (8/1/12). “Hawaii tourists spend record $1.2 billion in June” (7/26/12), “Isle visitors lift sales figures” (7/8/12), “Vegas visitors expected to be up slightly for 4th” (7/4/12).

We should remember that visitors hear and read these same news reports. From these headlines, they might conclude that no one cares about their Hawaii experience or why they came here, as long as they spend money before they leave.

We should also remember that our children notice the emphasis on tourism and money. These news stores can influence their opinions about Hawaii and our visitors, and it could change the way they interact with visitors if they get jobs in the visitor industry.

Visitor statistics should be balanced by human stories. In addition to arrivals, spending, and “satisfaction” we need to hear about the people who come to Hawaii:

* What made them choose Hawaii over any other place in the world?
* What did they expect to find when they got here – and how did we meet their expectations?
* What did they do here? What would they like to do again? Could their experiences have been better?
* What did they enjoy about Hawaii’s natural beauty and unique cultural?
* What surprised them about Hawaii?

If we know about the people behind the numbers, residents could relate better to them and feel more connected to them. Businesses could decide how to improve their experience of Hawaii. Lawmakers could see them as “seasonal residents” instead of “transients” who pay their taxes (without representation in Hawaii) and then leave.

Let’s ask the media to report more about our visitors as people. And let’s treat our visitors more like future neighbors.

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