Without culture, the term Hawaiian has little meaning. We need to nurture our living keepers of the culture—kumu (teachers of) hula, chanters, navigators, and practitioners in all the arts and sciences that define us as a people. One way to do that is through Community Tourism.
Hawaiʻi struggles with its love-hate relationship with tourism because it often comes at the expense of our places and people in what seems like an unequal exchange of value. The good news is there are models of tourism that actually vibrate well with communities—that support and nurture our people, cultural spaces, traditions, and shared prosperity.
Community Tourism is small-scale tourism that springs directly out of a community willing to share itself with visitors. It is home-town tourism with all the rough edges, which is what gives it compelling charm and authenticity. It is up-close and personal, yet it is a daytime activity. Visitors return to their resorts at night, leaving the community to breathe.
It is a process not a product, and its planning must be inclusive of, understood by, and embraced by the general population of the place in which it occurs. It is for the most part small scale tourism whose planning and execution are driven by a genuine desire of a community willing to share itself, its history, traditions, and customs with strangers, as a means by which to support economic growth on terms defined by the area’s inhabitants. Community Tourism is only validated if the activity evolves as a solution to economic, environmental, social, educational, and cultural growth challenges. It is a process that must yield a fair exchange of value between the host and the hosted, preserves the community’s sense of place, and brings dignity and pride to the host.
Community Tourism is a mix of experiences created and operated by local, traditional, or indigenous peoples to enhance their quality of life, protect and restore their environmental and cultural assets, and engage visitors in meaningful ways. It often includes walking tours, home and farm visits, storefront museums, recreational offerings, craft cooperatives, nature and wildlife treks, cultural performances, food experiences, lectures on local culture and history, healing and health services, storytelling, and just about any aspect of community activity that may have value as a visitor experience. In urban neighborhoods, rural communities, and wilderness areas, Community Tourism can provide a powerful economic development strategy to generate more revenue for local people, and promote understanding of cultural diversity.
Community Tourism invites far more intimacy in the relationship between host and guest than is normally afforded by other tourism business models. It features authentic and genuine experiences for the guest, because it is an activity that exists for its own sake and is not constructed specifically to entertain a stranger. It is a community sharing its real culture by the people who practice it. The very nature of Community Tourism places boundaries and limitations on how many visitors can be accommodated so that the sense of place is not overwhelmed, and the ratio between the local population and the visitors remains in balance.
Community Tourism is a sustainable activity. Large-scale tourism often results in creating more problems for a community than it solves and can be particularly damaging to its culture, traditions, customs, and sense of place. Community Tourism is about creating a direct connection between the place, the people who live there, and the visitor. It minimizes gate-keeper systems of travel desks and destination management companies that separate the host from the hosted. Community Tourism makes the place, not the visitor, the center of care and attention, recognizing this as the best way to honor the visitor.
By making caring for the place the priority, you also preserve the customs, traditions, landscapes, and history of the people who live there. What better way to welcome and honor a stranger than to present the community at its very best.
Community Tourism is a community celebrating its own greatness and inviting strangers to join the celebration. While it is about preserving heritage, it is also about the evolution of a heritage. It need not freeze landscapes or cultural practices and traditions. It is about honoring the past and connecting it to the future in a dynamic evolution of the living culture of the local population—celebrating where we came from, defining who we are in the present, and crafting new dreams that transition us into the future. In the end, Community Tourism is about preserving the dignity of a people willing to open their hearts to strangers from other places. As the ʻolelo noʻeau (proverb) says, “O ke aloha ke kuleana o kahi malihini” – love is the host in strange lands.