It’s Not Like the Postcard
The Hawai‘i of midcentury imagination has changed.1“Hawai‘i” includes an ‘okina, a Hawaiian-language consonant pronounced as a glottal stop. The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names recommends this pronunciation so as to preserve the distinctness of the Native Hawaiian language. The word “Hawaiian” does not include an ‘okina. Gone are the days of postwar leisure reward — of packing up the Cadillac for the airport, slipping on your Hawaiian shirt, and flying to exotic, unspoiled islands where you can watch a luau and sip a mai tai without a care in the world. The Hawai‘i of today, at least in the state-sponsored commercials, is telling us another story.
In 2020-2021, “Go Hawai‘i,” a project of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, produced a suite of eight video advertisements designed to regenerate the state’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.2See all the videos at the “Go Hawai‘i” website. Each ad features footage of the Pacific’s cerulean waves juxtaposed with Hawai‘i’s verdant landscape, followed by a vignette in which people who appear to be Native Hawaiian lead Anglo tourists in environmentally-minded activities — tree planting, beach clean-up, and wetland restoration. In one ad, tourists are helping to install plants along a riverside to ameliorate flooding; another shows families cleaning rubbish out of silty shallow waters. We also see these tourists learning cultural traditions from Native Hawaiians — shell calling, braiding haku lei, and listening to ukelele. Each “Go Hawai‘i” spot shows the tourists immersed in the tropical landscape they presumably crave, yet they’re performing manual labor while on vacation. In other words, these advertisements appeal to visitors by seeking — at least within the realm of the ads themselves — to place some of the responsibility for caring for Hawai‘i’s lands, oceans, and residents onto those whose spending animates the archipelago’s economy: its tourists.
Historically, postcards and travel posters have presented a very different view of tourist Hawai‘i. The iconic tropical flowers, pristine beaches, jagged mountains and coastlines, and grand hotels, not to mention the recurring trope of a lone Hawaiian woman, helped throughout the postwar decades not only to generate revenue, but to tacitly maintain an ethos of dominance by mainlanders. In United Airlines posters from the 1960s, for instance, Hawai‘i is depicted as existing purely for the enjoyment of White visitors. One poster presents a presumably Native Hawaiian woman — she wears a grass skirt and lei, with a hibiscus flower in her hair, although her features and skin tone are only vaguely “native.” She is dancing, smiling as she gazes sharply upward; the observer is literally looking down on her. Another has dark-skinned Native Hawaiians guiding three pale tourists on an outrigger canoe down the crest of a large wave; a green mountain juts up in the background. In a third poster, yet another Native Hawaiian woman smiles in her grass skirt and lei; behind her an airplane and a sailboat move among mountains, flowers, ocean, and stripes of yellow sunshine. This figure has darker skin, and is less realistically portrayed than the smiling woman in the radically foreshortened illustration. In some respects, these vintage ads present the same elements as the contemporary videos, all crucial to the identity of Hawai‘i as a locus of mainlanders’ fantasies: nature, outdoor activities, and just enough cultural immersion. At least the “Go Hawai‘i” series has relinquished the sexpot trope of the travel posters.
These midcentury ads disguised a violent history; colonial influence on these islands has been intensely destructive. Sociologist David Swanson explains that before Captain Cook’s landing in 1780, the islands’ population numbered around 700,000; by 1900, this had plummeted to less than 50,000.3Gene Demby, “It Took Two Centuries, But the Native Hawaiian Population May Be Bouncing Back,” NPR Code Switch (April 18, 2015). As outlined in a 2010 report by Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, “75 percent of plant and animal extinctions documented in the United States have occurred in Hawai‘i.”4Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawai‘i Statewide Assessment of Forest Conditions and Resource Strategy, 2010. This destruction is hinted at in the ubiquitous advertising image of the Hawaiian woman. She may be smiling — but she is always alone. She can be read not only as the romanticized vision of an exotic, half-clothed woman, but also as the sole survivor of a century of exploitation and death.
What happened between the United Airlines travel posters and 2021’s “Go Hawai‘i” campaign? To answer this complicated question, we can look at the effects of climate change. The picture of Hawai‘i built by media — exotic, remote, and unspoiled — is being shifted toward the image of a place that needs repair. This change towards remediation and restoration seeks discreetly to shift responsibility from the indigenous population to the tourists. Such an aim might be taken as representative of more complex national shifts in asking who is responsible for repairing the generations of colonial and imperial control and the resulting climate crisis. But are these advertisements enough to transform power dynamics within and around Hawai‘i? Will engaging in environmentally friendly activities while on vacation change how mainlanders think about Hawai‘i? Do a few hours of a beach clean-up or tree planting really help to counterbalance the carbon footprint of air travel to the islands? In the end, tourists are paying for leisure and relaxation, not labor. The power structure remains; in the “Go Hawai‘i” vignettes, the Native Hawaiians remain responsible for giving the tourists pleasurable experiences.
What is clear is that by referencing the Native Hawaiian philosophy of mālama ‘āina, or “to protect the land,” the ads now choose to use the voice, language, and wisdom of Native Hawaiians rather than the markers of mainlander fantasy. There is no more time for viewing Hawai‘i according to the terms of its midcentury imaginary. Although the state is hungry for tourists in a post-COVID world, there is potential for remediation and reconciliation. These advertisements are one small element of a subtle shift in how Americans tackle the intersecting issues of climate change, social justice, and environmental justice. The “Go Hawai‘i” campaign is still selling getaways for mainlanders. But instead of sexualized relaxation, the campaign is promoting a sense of responsibility. Given the urgency of the climate crisis and its ties to historical settler-colonialist and imperialist damage, it’s a change worth noting.
- “Hawai‘i” includes an ‘okina, a Hawaiian-language consonant pronounced as a glottal stop. The Hawai’i Board on Geographic Names recommends this pronunciation so as to preserve the distinctness of the Native Hawaiian language. The word “Hawaiian” does not include an ‘okina.
- See all the videos at the“Go Hawai‘i” website.
- Gene Demby, “It Took Two Centuries, But the Native Hawaiian Population May Be Bouncing Back,” NPR Code Switch (April 18, 2015).
- Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawai‘i Statewide Assessment of Forest Conditions and Resource Strategy, 2010.