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The end of WWII

Hawaii emerged from WWII with military scars. As a historical US military base and the site of Pearl Harbor (the event that launched the US into the war), the traditional agricultural economy had taken severe casualties. The tourism industry, with the growth and potential to emerge as a serious economic force before the war, had come to a near halt during the war. However, due to the focused efforts of the new Hawaii Visitors Bureau and the advances made in aviation technology during the war, Hawaii used the end of World War II as an opportunity to develop a mega-tourism industry that would persist into the future.


From the outbreak of World War II, the United States attempted to avoid first hand military involvement. Tensions in the Pacific strained this strategy to a breaking point on December 7, 1941 with the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The next day Congress declared war. Us military involvement secured a number of Pacific islands and the Battle at Midway in the summer of 1942 was a major turning point favoring the Americans in the Pacific theater. These events meant the continued American military presence in Hawaii and the possibility of an even closer Hawaiian-American relationship after the war.

It may seem obvious that tourism in Hawaii has not always been the monster industry that it is today. The islands were outside of stable “Western” contact until James Cook’s visits and even then remained culturally isolated. Tourism was not officially sanctioned by the islands until the Hawaiian Visitors Bureau was established in 1902 and the State of Hawaii keeps tourism records from 1927 to now. In 1927, 1,758 international tourists visited the islands, more than a million fewer foreigners than today. The year 1941 was “a record year for tourism” with 31,846 visitors (international N/A). This was the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tourism efforts, or, at least, official record keeping, was suspended from 1942 to 1945. The below graph represents the State of Hawaii’s official tourism records from 1927 to 1968 (the actual graph goes to 2009).

Understanding the devastating impacts that the attack on Pearl Harbor and the role of Hawaii as a now well known military base would have on their image and on tourism, the Chamber of Commerce began building tourism up with the Hawaii Travel Bureau in 1944 (History). This agency’s mission was to leave “a friendly Territorial impression on the servicemen who were soon to go home [sic]” (History). This mission was realized, although the effects were slow to surface. While agricultural exports were devastated during the war, “tourism became the surrogate, ‘a new kind of sugar’” (Picard). Soldiers stationed overseas during the war now had a “new appreciation for the ocean,” an attitude the Hawaiian Travel Bureau was eager to promote and exploit (Heenhan). The Hawaiian legislature has a history of heavy investment in the tourism industry as well as promotion, even promising “to match private contributions to the tourism promotion budget” when a maritime strike in 1949 threatened to devastate tourism (Picard, History).

Part of this post war promotional effort has been molding and spreading the Hawaiian image, which, “since the 1950s… has been of the tropical variety: scenery, beaches, and sun” (Picard). American citizens did not need a passport to visit the islands, which provided a relatively cheap and easy getaway vacation. In addition, the passage of the GI Bill of Rights ensured some wealth for the very soldiers that had returned from island destinations as well as those targeted by the Hawaiian Travel Bureau. This, coupled with the war time end to the Depression and post-war consumer fever (the new cultural representation of patriotism), made the luxury of tourism a reality for many Americans (Rise).

This new demand for luxury was soon met with the means of achieving it: transportation on the Pacific. In 1948 alone, $19 million was spent on converting the war boat Lurline back into a passenger liner (History). In addition, American President Lines resumed business in the Pacific and “scheduled air service was inaugurated to Hawaii” (History). Aircraft technology had been fully implemented and advanced during World War II, and the commercial business was overwhelmed once wartime travel restrictions were abolished (Post-War). Jet engines, as opposed to propeller planes, were introduced to Hawaii upon its induction into the Union in1959, bringing with it a wave of new American and international tourists (History). Despite overwhelming numbers of visitors, the Hawaiian Visitors Bureau continued world-wide promotional campaigns that would only serve to secure the new nation as a tourist destination well into the future.

But what did that mean for the future of the island’s natives? Even currently, “Pacific Islanders cite Hawaii as a negative example of tourism’s impacts” environmentally and especially culturally (Picard). Other Pacific islands, such as Okinawa, have struggled to shed the wartime connotations and adopt a new image of tropical relaxation, but in doing so inextricably bond themselves to mainland nations (Picard, Figal). This link is financial, commercial, and cultural, and ensures large numbers of mainland tourists every year. This could be seen as dooming for local human cultures, but what about the other natives of the islands?

Too often it seems that preserving indigenous animal “cultures) is forgotten in the rush of tourism and the revenue these “exotic” beasts generate. It seems that the end of World War II, in one manner of speaking, doomed the local populations of animals (especially the Hawaiian Spinner dolphin) to a crowded future. American GIs were introduced to these creatures while at their bases, and then encouraged by the Hawaiians themselves to fall in love with the natural beauty of the islands- dolphins and all. Further efforts made by the Hawaiian government, the American government, as well as travel and transportation agencies further promoted tourism on the islands. These efforts worked remarkably well, as can be seen by the steady growth of tourists in the islands since the end of the war. This devotion to tourism by the now state of Hawaii has persisted to recent years without regard for the protection of local dolphin populations. Swimming with the dolphins continues to be a major revenue earner for locals as Americans and other international tourists continue to flood onto the islands in search of the very promise of post war Hawaii: tropical scenery, beaches, and sun.

Right and left: United Air Lines, The New Yorker, 1953. John W. Harlman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History
Center: credit: reprinted courtesy of American Airlines, INC

Figal, G. (2008). Between war and tropics: Heritage tourism in postwar okinawa. The Public Historian, 30(2), 83-107. doi: 10.1525/tph.2008.30.2.83

Heenhan, Heather L. “The Big Picture: History and the Social Construction of Spinner Dolphins.” SAPPHIRE: Spinner dolphin acoustics, populations parameters and human Impacts research. Accessed 8/5/2012.

“History.” Corporate Information. Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau 2012.

Picard, Michel. 1997. Tourism, Ethnicity, and the State in Asian and Pacific Societies. n.p.: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2012).

“Post-War Revival and Regulation.” The Heyday of Propeller Airlines 1941-1958. America by Air, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

“Rise of American Consumerism, The.” The American Experience. WGBH Educational Foundation and PBS, 1996-2010.

“Historical Visitor Statistics.” Visitor Statistics. The State of Hawai’I Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism: Hawaii’s Business Recourse Site, 2004-2012.

  1945  /  History  /  Last Updated August 31, 2012 by Heather Heenehan  /