Politics Have Ripped the Heart Out of Waikiki

By: Trustee Rowena Akana
May, 1995

Source: Star Bulletin; Viewpoint

1952 Barry Napolean established Hawai’i’s first beach concession on the sands of Waikiki. The beach was open to all. Competitors to his business moved in. Though the beach boys jockeyed for position, the tourists still saw the best O’ahu had to offer. Surfing lessons, canoe rides, talking story and the warmth of a Hawaiian people in harmony with their surroundings. It was the aloha spirit.  Now it is gone.

Politics have ripped the heart out of Waikiki. In its place politicians want to market an artificial heart, also called the aloha spirit. It will cost taxpayers $30 million for the current fiscal year.  And it won’t help a thing.

“Too often the legislators, DBEDT (Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism) and the HVB (Hawai’i Visitors Bureau) saw Hawai’i’s tourism budget as a sort of bank account available for us in the pursuit of their respective and usually diverse interests,” wrote Robert Rees in the Honolulu Weekly on June 29. “They had a hard time agreeing on objectives. The debates centered around who got what. The 1994-95 marketing strategy actually acknowledges that after 35 years, the absences of a mission is a serious deficiency. But it claims, ‘we can no longer simply afford to grow without a plan.’ Instead of planning, HVB has substituted mindless annual percentage increases.”

Is this just another horror story of government incompetence? Perhaps.  But Barry Napoleon knows first-hand how politics can crush the aloha spirit, not just squander it.

“From 1982 to 1984 I paid $400 a month to DLNR for an 8 by 12-foot space in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village,” Barry told me. The DLNR had taken control of the beach lands some time earlier and was now selling permits for concession stands. The DLNR sold one permit to a Mainland group. Barry later complained to the DLNR about alleged criminal activity out of his competitor’s concession. Three days later, the DLNR revoked his permit. The reason: Barry had violated the conditions of his rental agreement by encroaching on several inches past his allotment of sand. His equipment was confiscated.

In 1985 he found a new home at the Waikiki Shores. Barry was paying the owner $15,000 a month for ground-floor space fronting the beach. The DLNR evicted him. Barry won a temporary restraining order so he could prove his permits were valid. The DLNR ignored the court order and confiscated his equipment. Without his business, Barry could not earn enough money to press his case.

Earlier this year his two nephews tried to reopen a beach concession. The state tore it down.

This was happening as the state was spending millions to market the aloha spirit. A senator persuaded DBEDT’s director to pay $225,000 for the right to put the words “Hawaiian Vacation” on the side of a dragster for three months.

$500,000 was spent to produce a single TV commercial, shown a few times on cable. $8.3 million was offered to administer HVB’s bureaucracy. Millions more were funneled to pet HVB projects and DBEDT supporters.

And from all this we are to attract visitors to the islands?  Not likely.

Barry Napoleon is 65 years old. He has spent the better part of his life on the beach at Waikiki. Tourists from around the world remember Barry, and the beach boys like him, for one simple reason: they were genuine. They were Hawaiian.

The aloha spirit is embodied in the Hawaiian people. Not enough work in the tourism industry. Fewer still have the power to change it.

Marketing campaigns cannot sell what doesn’t exist. For Barry the spirit exists. It courses through his veins like blood even as the state bleeds him dry.  “I want to work again, to be back on the beach. This is where my heart is. This is my life.”