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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, January 22, 2002

We need to define Hawai'i sense of place

Butch Kerzner, president of Sun International Hotels, says any architectural plans for a paradisical mega-resort and casino in Ko'olina would have a distinctly Hawaiian flavor.

And Greg Brenneman, a former Continental Airlines executive who expects to be chief executive of a merged Hawaiian and Aloha airlines, wants his new venture to reflect the specialness of Hawai'i.

It all sounds lovely, but what exactly is the mythical "Hawaiian" style that so many speak of with so few words? Friendly, laid-back and richly multicultural, boasting turquoise waters, unique flora and fauna, golden beaches, emerald mountains and rainbows? Or inefficient, overly bureaucratic, parochial and expensive?

Hawai'i is all that and much more. Yet for all the talk about establishing a Hawaiian "sense of place," someone, including Kerzner and Brenneman, has to articulate a clear vision of what makes Hawai'i stand out from other tourist destinations.

It's high time we start to brainstorm about what makes Hawai'i special, and articulate that vision to the outside world. With competition from less expensive warm-weather tourist destinations, we can't afford not to.

The economic fallout of 9-11 has forced officials to face the hard truth that the industry lacks vision.

At least that was the conclusion at a weekend summit where the Hawai'i Tourism Authority board concluded that the authority had become so bogged down in daily operations that it had lost sight of its original mandate.

Board members talked about a quest for a dynamic leader with the creative courage to make controversial decisions.

We're all for more creative leadership in the tourism industry. The old image of grass shacks and mai tais could go with any island paradise. What we need to do is define what is unique to Hawai'i, such as the cultural practices woven into our daily lives.

If the Hawaiian sense of place remains as nebulous as it has, outsiders with plans to capitalize on tourism here will define Hawai'i for us, and that fantasy might not jive with the image we hold in our hearts.