Encouraging Mālama Hawaiʻi Tourism

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When Justin Nakaʻahiki was growing up, his parents always reminded him about the valuable resources available to Native Hawaiians and encouraged him to take advantage of those opportunities.

As a shy boy from Kekaha Hawaiian Homestead on Kauaʻi , Nakaʻahiki took his parents’ advice to heart. And today, with the support of an Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ (OHA) Mālama Loan for Native Hawaiian business owners, Nakaʻahiki now owns his own company: Destination Marketing Hawaiʻi.

A Local Company with Global Reach

This small-town boy is now playing in the big leagues.

Nakaʻahiki’s company has a vast network that connects Hawaiʻi to English-speaking audiences around the globe with compelling pre-arrival messages for travelers coming to our islands.

Nakaʻahiki is the ideal go-between. He capably represents Hawaiʻi to businesses throughout the world and represents the interests of businesses seeking support in Hawaiʻi. He recently organized a major conference here in Hawaiʻi for 300 of the world’s travel industry leaders.

But success didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a long journey full of obstacles, but Nakaʻahiki has been able to move forward and has made good business decisions along the way – a a prime example of someone who turns challenges into opportunities.

Thriving in Challenging Circumstances

After graduating from Waimea High School, Nakaʻahiki earned a marketing degree from UH Mānoa and hit the ground running. He worked in various positions at a Honolulu advertising agency, which led to a successful career in the travel industry and tourism marketing. His 20-year career includes a decade of leading the marketing efforts for Aqua-Aston Hospitality.

“I made a switch in my career just two months before the Great Recession [of 2008],” Nakaʻahiki recalled.

The self-described optimist didn’t let the daunting challenges of visitor decline and the volitile economic climate derail him. He stayed with it, developing the tenacity and an unshakable confidence that would serve him well in the future.

In 2018, he left the hotel industry with a myriad of connections and contacts to join Destination Marketing Hawaiʻi.

Nakaʻahiki had known the company’s owner for years through his professional network, and she had become something of a mentor to him. She started the company in 1998, but wanted to transition out and pegged Nakaʻahiki to take over.

For two years, Nakaʻahiki worked with her, learning the business and enjoying the freedom she gave him to take on big projects.

Pandemic Introspection and Rebalancing

In early 2020, Nakaʻahiki purchased Destination Marketing Hawaiʻi. No sooner had he acquired the business, when the unthinkable happened – the pandemic began, lockdowns were enforced, and the visitor industry went into a tailspin as visitors stopped coming to Hawaiʻi.

“I saw colleagues who had been in the business for 20 to 30 years leave the industry,” Nakaʻahiki said.

Instead of despairing, Nakaʻahiki used the downtime for administrative housekeeping, getting all the paperwork in order for his newly acquired company. “Since I was now my own boss, it was a time to reassess everything,” he said.

Timely Support from OHA

Nakaʻahiki also turned to OHA and federal funding to help his company get through the pandemic. He had learned about OHA’s loan program “through friends of friends and through cousins of cousins,” and knew he would be in good hands.

The financing came at a critical time, allowing him to create a solid foundation for his company.

Loan Processor Robert Crowell with OHA’s Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Fund program said OHA was able to provide Nakaʻahiki with funds to revamp Destination Marketing Hawaiʻi’s portfolio of products and services and, critically, to provide funding to keep Nakaʻahiki’s assistant employed.

By 2021, Destination Marketing Hawaiʻi was ready to move forward.

A New Way of Seeing Hawaiʻi

The pandemic was also a time for reflection. During the lockdown, Hawaiʻi residents had an opportunity to experience uncrowded beaches for the first time and better understand the need to protect and preserve Hawaiʻi’s natural beauty and ecosystems.

Suddenly, stewardship of our islands, destination management, and attracting the right “types” of visitors — instead of high volumes of visitors — became the topic of everyday conversations and high-level policy discussions.

Nakaʻahiki not only looked at changes within his own company, but also the way Hawaiʻi was being marketed and promoted in general. His abiding love for Hawaiʻi and genuine respect for all people guided the direction of his company.

And his values-based commitment to mālama Hawaiʻi became even stronger as the pandemic challenged and broadly changed perspectives on the perils of over- tourism.

Nakaʻahiki didn’t get caught in the fray by taking sides on the issue of destination management versus tourism marketing. His seasoned industry perspective allowed him to see the intrinsic value of both views as he used his influence to personally promote efforts to “rebalance” Hawaiʻi’s visitor industry and help others to know and appreciate the authentic Hawaiʻi.

“Over-tourism is not unique to Hawaiʻi,” he said. “We need both destination management and travel marketing. One can leverage the other more effectively for storytelling. The two specialties can work hand-in-hand.”

In the meantime, Nakaʻahiki continues to move his business forward. Although he has big aspirations – and has even considered replicating his business model to support other destinations around the world – at the end of the day, his connection to the land and ʻohana was stronger.

“This is my home,” he said. “This is where I’m meant to be.”