IT IS THE YEAR 1903 and a Matson Liner that departed from San Francisco four and a half days ago tucks itself into a dock at Aloha Tower. Streamers fly through the air and each passenger who departs with their trunks and hat boxes in tow is greeted with an “Aloha” and a fresh lei. 2,000 visitors come to Hawai‘i in this year and in this fashion. Many save their lei and as steamships pass by Diamond Head on their way back to the continent, visitors symbolically throw their lei into the sea in the hopes that they too will return to the shores of Hawai‘i.
In 2019, nearly 10.5 million tourists visited the islands. It is no longer possible to greet each one with fresh lei, which in its essence is the most iconic symbol of aloha. Some visitors pre-arrange a paid service of lei greeters at the airport to reenact the pomp. They yearn for “the aloha spirit” that represents Hawai‘i; some have traveled across the globe to experience it.
Saturation is the word which describes 10.5 million tourists in one year to remote islands of less than 6,500 square miles combined. If Hawai‘i’s economy depends on tourism and that tourism is in many ways dependent on the aloha spirit, what happens when our hospitality industry cannot keep up with the demand? The days of long-standing careers in hospitality have, by and large, transformed into a service industry of high turnover rates and workers forced to keep multiple jobs to provide for themselves and their families. There is a big difference between the two: hospitality involves personal interaction, service is merely performing duties.
In 2019, there were 216,000 workers in Hawai‘i’s tourism industry. They were working in restaurants, hotels, bars, as Waikiki Beach Boys, as traditional Polynesian dancers at lū‘au, as taxi drivers, in curio shops and car rentals agencies. We cannot continue to consider our workers in the vast industry of tourism as dispensable and neglect to pay them a living wage while also expecting them to emit aloha to our islands’ visitors.
This begs the question: has the heyday of aloha in Hawai‘i’s hospitality industry come and gone? Has the weight of our tourism economy become too heavy for the cultural and social intricacies of aloha to thrive? When stretched too thin, genuine aloha becomes nearly translucent, and ABC Store Hawaiian shirts and plastic lei takes its place.
Aloha cannot be directly translated. It means an abundance of things beyond “hello” and “goodbye.” It’s the Hawaiian word for love, compassion and kindness. It is a feeling. In hospitality, for one example, the aloha spirit is felt when the server at your favorite local joint knows your name (and your drink order) and takes the time to talk story table-side. It should be remembered that hospitality is not just for tourists to the islands, but for locals too. In the internet age where “local haunts” are flaunted across travel blogs and long lines appear at tucked away gems, how will the aloha prevail? Aloha is not compatible with lightning fast service and impersonal exchanges with unfamiliar faces.
Despite it all, aloha is alive and well across the islands of Hawai‘i. Men and women still gift each other lei, sometimes for no reason at all. Beers are clinked, meals are shared, beach pā‘ina carry on. Shakas get thrown, story gets talked, backyard mangoes are left on neighbors’ doorsteps. Those who understand the significance of aloha in Hawai‘i will continue to perpetuate its values.
But let us also take better care of our hospitality workers, considering that our state’s economy rests on their aching shoulders. Support your local lei maker and the mom-and-pop general stores, and please, tip your server. Let us be more patient with the tourists in their rental cars, give them directions when they look lost on the sidewalk and help them pronounce Hawaiian words when they struggle. That is spreading aloha. Let us say the word aloha more, to our friends and to strangers, and really mean it. We can be the aloha we wish to see in Hawai‘i’s hospitality industry.