Selling a Real Hawaii

Karin Kovalsky

Peter Apo, head of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, in Waikiki

For Peter Apo, it’s been a long road from sovereignty activist to head of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association. This nonprofit organization helps the visitor industry improve its customer service by promoting Hawaiian values. Consequently, Apo’s job is often a precarious balance—selling Hawaii, without selling out. 

“For good cause, many Hawaiians are distanced from the visitor industry; they don’t like how it operates,” says Apo, who is Hawaiian. “But Hawaiians are such good hosts. One of the most important values for them is welcoming strangers, so it’s innate. On the other hand, I don’t think the visitor industry fully understands that the most sustainable business model is helping people who live in the area celebrate themselves first, then bring the visitors in.” 
Apo didn’t always think this way. After growing up in Makaha, he spent more than a decade on the Mainland, attending college and playing folk music professionally. He even managed road tours for some of the biggest acts of the ’70s, including The Eagles and Helen Reddy.

But Apo left that frenetic life behind, returning to the Islands in 1975, just as the Hawaiian Renaissance—a resurgence of interest in the native culture—was in full swing. That year, the Hokulea sailed its maiden voyage and the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana was formed. It made Apo realize how little he knew about his culture.

“In my generation, it was not cool to be Hawaiian,” says Apo, who’s now 65. “I didn’t even know until much later in life that both my parents were fluent in Hawaiian, since they never spoke it to us as kids. The whole time on the Mainland, I thought of myself as just a brown-skin guy playing music. I didn’t know who I was. But as I started learning more about Hawaiian history, I started getting pissed off, and I became an activist.”

Unlike many Hawaiian nationalists, Apo opted to work “within the system” to make changes. After chairing the Waianae Neighborhood Board, he successfully ran in the first election for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ board of trustees and later served for 12 years as the district’s state representative. In 1999, Mayor Jeremy Harris selected Apo to head the Office of Waikiki Development.

The post came with controversy. “I had Hawaiians tell me, F you, it’s not worth it,’” says Apo. “They have every right to be mad about tourism and development in Hawaii, but the Hawaiian culture is not about throwing rocks or just letting people do what they want. It’s about caring enough for the aina to get involved.”

In 2001, Apo became director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, co-founded by the late Hawaiian historian George Kanahele, who pushed the tourism industry to adopt Hawaiian values in its corporate culture. The association provides hookipa (hospitality) training and consulting for businesses, such as Hilton, Maui’s Käanapali Hotel and the convention center. Training focuses on three pillars of the visitor experience: guest, host and place.

“How all three interact determines if an experience is good or bad,” says Apo. “Every time a hotel worker passes someone in the hallway, it’s an opportunity to be a good host. We also give employees a history of Hawaii and the area they work in, and that makes them feel proud, because they feel connected to the place. Then it’s their kuleana to pass it on to the guests.”  

Other programs at the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association include the Waikiki Historic Trail, which provides free, guided tours by Hawaiian historians. This summer, the agency plans to launch, a database of Hawaiian history, music, literature, as well as a calendar of cultural events and activities.

“The hardest part is trying to engage a large segment of the Hawaiian population,” Apo says. “If you don’t like how the visitor industry operates, then you have to help us change it. It’s not pono to walk away from it. That goes not just for Hawaiians, but for anyone in Hawaii who cares about Hawaii.”