Photograph of lei makers selling leis, c. 1901. Image in public domain.

Native Hawaiian lei makers sell their lei to arriving tourists at the turn of the 20th century, possibly at a steamship dock in Honolulu. 


20th Century

Tourism as seen in Hawaiʻi today has it roots dating back to the late 19th century, when outside influences were changing the political, economic, and cultural dynamics in the Hawaiian Kingdom. Many factors led up to the boom of the tourism industry in the 1900s, including, but not limited to:

  • The illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy and subsequent unconstitutional annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi to the United States
  • Widespread illness and death among Native Hawaiian population after the introduction of foreign diseases brought by sailors and other visitors
  • White plantation owners’ dissatisfaction with being the racial minority in the islands, while their non-white contracted employees held power in large numbers through labor riots and unions
  • The increasing control of Hawaiian political affairs and economic dealings by a dominant class of white Republican sugar barons and landowners
  • The westernization and colonial structures already set in place by the missionary advance
  • Visits from prominent American and British writers, like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, who subsequently published works about their experiences
  • Disparity of monetary wealth between sugar barons and foreign business interests, white landowners, non-white immigrant communities, and displaced Native Hawaiians
  • The opening of commercial passenger steamship and airliner services between Hawaiʻi and the west coast, namely San Francisco
  • The exoticism of Native Hawaiian culture, lands, and bodies

Lithograph advertisement for Pan American Airways, 1938. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

This 1938 lithograph advertises Pan American Airways’ passenger service from San Francisco to Honolulu, which took 21 hours to complete and cost $360 at the time. Posters like these were highly popular and used throughout much the 20th century to sell a commodified image of Hawaiian culture to American tourists—an image which did not portray the reality of Hawaiʻi’s “behind the scenes” racial politics.


...Hawaiian culture is constantly in danger of commercialization. Despite their real expression of our culture, the hula and Hawaiian language are easily incorporated into, and transformed by, tourist promotions, hotel festivities, and the ideological sea of commercialism...

—Haunani-Kay Trask (from ‘From a Native Daughter,’ 1993)

The first hotel in Waikīkī was built in 1901, spurred by the early roots of colonial tourism that had already been established in Hawaiʻi several decades prior. To further commercialize and expand the visitor industry, a tourism promotion bureau was established in 1903 which sponsored lecture tours to potential visitors on the west coast. As commercial passenger service capacities increased and more Western monies were funneled into the promotion of a “Hawaiian holiday,” the number of tourists in the islands grew rapidly. In the year leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and US entry into WWII in 1941, annual tourist counts totaled more than 31,000.

By the second half of the century—despite disruptions brought on earlier by the Great Depression and World Wars I and II—tourism and land speculation grew exponentially to replace sugar and pineapple plantations as Hawaiʻi’s primary economic resource. Today, over a fifth of Hawaiʻi’s economic revenue is generated by the local tourist industry.

Number of foreign visitors to the islands over the years:
1903 — 2,000
1941 — 31,846
1955 — 109,000
1959 — 250,000
1980 — over 6 million
2005 — over 7 million
2019 — over 9 million

Assorted Hawaiian travel brochures, mid-20th century. Objects in personal collection of Lehuauakea.

A handful of tour guides and pamphlets from the 1950s and 1960s, found at a local estate sale in Portland, Oregon. 


Tours Away From Hawaiʻi

Satin ribbon from Hawaiian Girls Tour scrapbook, 1907. Object in Five Oaks Museum Albert Tozier collection.

A yellow satin commemorative ribbon like this would have been worn by the girls of the 1907 Pacific Coast Tour. The group was chaperoned by Edyth Tozier Weathered and included Rose Aloiau, Emma Rose, Hester Lemon, Hattie L. Soffrey, Bernice Dwight, Lillian Mundon, California Lucas, Kate Saddler and Daisy Todd.

By the early 1900s, commercial steamships were carrying hundreds of passengers both to and from Hawaiʻi. In order to further advertise for tourism, multiple agencies and organizations sponsored tours of Kānaka performers or selected groups, especially young girls, to visit major landmarks and cities on the American west coast via steamship.

One group of nine Hawaiian girls sponsored by the Honolulu Evening Bulletin in 1907 is well documented in many urban newspapers—telling of the interest the tours generated amongst American cities in today’s California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

The girls—educated and well-versed in Western colonial etiquette—were carefully chosen as “representatives of the best families in the islands,” in order to sell the Hawaiian image to Western audiences in a palatable, intriguing manner.

Articles from Hawaiian Girls Tour scrapbook, 1907. Object in Five Oaks Museum Alfred Tozier collection.

Newspaper clippings from a personal scrapbook owned by chaperone Edyth Tozier Weatherred (a prominent Portland figure) detail the 1907 visits of the Hawaiian girls in Portland and Astoria. The articles give brief and often exoticized descriptions of the Kānaka.

Other Kānaka toured the west coast in the early 20th century as performing musicians and dancers. These performers played a complicated role in representing Hawaiian culture to foreign audiences, a dynamic which would ultimately commodify their native music and dance through tourism. Hula dancers were not permitted to dance traditional hula kahiko after the missionaries deemed it an “abomination,” so musicians were paid to perform mostly Westernized compositions.

The Colville Examiner, 1916.

A 1916 article from The Colville Examiner advertises a performance by Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet, which was led by renowned inventor of the steel guitar Joseph Kekuku (far right). The group made numerous stops on a tour across the continent and spread the iconic sound that many Americans still attribute to a Hawaiian tourist experience.

He Aloha Moku O Keawe lyrics by Emalia Kaihumua. Image courtesy of

A song by “Sweet Emalia” Kaihumua, a performer and composer who toured the west coast to raise interest in visits to Hawaiʻi. She wrote this mele (song) longing for her home on Moku O Keawe (‘Big Island’) in 1894 after a visit to California during the colder winter months. Here, “Australia” refers to the name of the steamship that carried her abroad. 


After over a century of modern tourism controlled overwhelmingly by non-Hawaiians, the tourist commodification of Native Hawaiian culture and lands has come to the forefront of issues affecting Kānaka Maoli today. Over the years, the annual number of foreign visitors has approached 10 million and Hawaiʻi’s economy has become increasingly dependent on the tourist service and hospitality industries as a result. Throughout history and continuing today, this dependency has had numerous adverse effects on the Kānaka Maoli people, including the displacement of Hawaiians from their lands, rising costs of living leading many to leave the islands (often to places along the west coast of Turtle Island), the misrepresentation and tokenization of Native Hawaiian culture, damage to ecologically sensitive biomes, and beyond.

As these practices have continually been proven unsustainable on a local and global level—especially during a global Coronavirus pandemic—awareness and advocacy around these issues are picking up traction amongst Native Hawaiian communities both in Hawaiʻi and abroad.


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