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Some say summit fails to project the spirit of Hawaii to global audience

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 2:12 p.m. HST, Nov 14, 2011

At APEC meetings all week, Hawaii has been on display.

Delegates have been exposed to Hawaiian food, dance, music and cultural demonstrations. APEC attendees have toured cultural destinations. World leaders have been hosted at private homes, where they were introduced to Hawaiian traditions. And Hawaiian singers and hula halau have performed at big and small gatherings alike, including a dinner with world leaders Saturday at the Hale Koa Hotel.

But some worry that not enough of Hawaiian culture got through to the world in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, and are disappointed at the absence of Hawaiian customs and sense of place at key events.

President Barack Obama, for example, did not get a lei when he landed Friday. And there were no aloha shirts to be found in the group photo of APEC world leaders Sunday. Instead, leaders wore business attire.

At a news conference Sunday at Ko Olina Resort, with palm trees and a blue sea in the background, the president was asked whether leaders passed up on aloha attire for the group photo because Obama didn't want to project the appearance of having a frivolous gathering in a top vacation spot during tough economic times.

"With respect to this trip, look, this is a pretty nice piece of scenery, and I take enormous pride of having been raised in the state of Hawaii," Obama said. "But we're here for business, we're here to create jobs and we've got a set of tangible concrete steps that we've taken that are going to make our economy stronger."

Maile Meyer, owner of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii, who helped to organize an APEC reception, said she noticed that the energy at the APEC meetings was one of "globalization."

"We could be in Singapore" or anywhere, she said. "It's unfortunate because it removes what is unique about whatever place you are in."

Hawaiian musician and language instructor Keli‘i Tau‘a agreed, saying it appeared that Hawaii wasn't seen as a host, "but only a place that they go to for their meetings."

But others counter that the forum was saturated with the aloha spirit and Hawaiian traditions, and also say that it was important for Hawaii to be seen as more than just a destination for play and relaxation.

APEC Hawaii Host Committee members could not be reached for comment Sunday night.

But John De Fries, president of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, which worked closely with the committee on a myriad of Hawaiian cultural aspects, said Hawaiian traditions and customs were apparent at APEC gatherings.

"I think it was a very evident that it was Hawaii APEC," De Fries said. "The real proof of this is whatever international media we can capture. We're going to need some time to gather all of that and begin to assess the extent that impact was made. But my gut feeling is, yes, this APEC was hosted by the United States, but delegations understood this was occurring in Hawaii and that Hawaii … (is) very unique."

De Fries also said that the work of the APEC Hawaii committee and business leaders over the coming months will be to figure out "what fruits did this really bear that can serve us going forward as a community, as a visitor industry, as a place to do business."

Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Peter Apo said security and APEC or State Department protocol wouldn't allow some Hawaiian customs.

"The lei (for Obama) was one of them," he said. "That was a no-no."

As for images of Hawaii and Hawaiian customs getting out to the world, Apo said it all depends on the "media reach and the interest level in the countries of origin."

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