Aloooooha: Cultural Experience or Tourist Trap?

The lady at the front of the bus, the hostess for our group of tourists intent on experiencing the culture of Hawaii, kept yelling at us. “Alooooooha” to each new family boarding and settling into their seats. I think she was attempting to beat the spirit of Hawaii into our haole hearts. It was our third luau in a week and definitely the least authentic. It was feeling less like a cultural experience and more like a tourist trap.

Hula dancers at a Polynesian luau.

Tourist Trap or Cultural Experience: Most luaus are varying degrees of both, but are truly a spectacle.

Funny thing, the luau. It has a rich and important place in Hawaiian culture and history, which is why it has become an attraction unto itself. That’s not to say every luau is a contrived event pandering to visitors. Even today, there are honest-to-goodness family and community gatherings that have all the trademark pieces of the touristy spectacle – traditional Imu with a fragrant, delicious roasted pig, lots of music, someone talking story, even hula – but with that authenticity that only comes from true ohana and locals that genuinely want to share their culture, not just pay the bills.

We see this time and again, all around the world, from “Changing of the Guards” ceremonies to Native American Pow Wows staged just for tourists’ cameras. More and more often, traditions and culture are the turned into tourist traps. Though sometimes fun and entertaining, they usually give you just a sampling of the culture you came to learn about, and often lack any warmth or emotion.

This is not to say that genuine versions of these no longer exist. So, how do you find the real deal? Many times, official tourism and cultural organizations are excellent resources. Be sure to also check with locals. Don’t know anybody in the area? Check out the websites, Facebook and Twitter accounts of local newspapers and TV stations; that’s where the locals get their news so it makes sense that you’ll find good information.

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Your turn: As customs and traditions turn into cash crops and tourist traps, how do you find genuine experiences while traveling?

10 comments on “Aloooooha: Cultural Experience or Tourist Trap?

    • Wholigans. Best “Greatest Hits” album…EVER! 😉 Thanks for stopping by. Sorry you missed the grinds. Ono piggie broke da mouth! he he he

    • There are some great luau experiences – and other authentic cultural experiences in Hawaii. Research is the key, Find locals, ask where they’d take family and friends. That’s where you want to be! 🙂

  1. You make a really great point here Rob which can be associated with all locations around the world because ultimately destinations are using their ‘highlighted attractions’ as leverage to trap you into spending money. Of course, it’s all about research in order to avoid such traps. Make sure you know what to expect prior to going into a new location.

    Great start to the A to Z Challenge mate, look forward to keeping up with you and supporting each other throughout the month!

    • Thanks Chris! It’s sad but true. As tourists, we want to experience the local culture. As bloggers, we want to write about it. Which makes other people want to see it…we’re always on that edge or ruining something by drawing attention to it. Thankfully, most often you can still find people sharing their culture and history for the right reasons. Loved your Bora Bora post, btw. That certainly is my dream destination!

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