Tourism professor Angela Fa‘anunu sees the economic slowdown as a chance to develop agritourism

UH Hilo Stories
by Emily Burkhart –

Assistant Prof. Fa‘anunu challenges her students to reimagine the conventional mass tourism industry in favor of alternative, more regenerative models centered around agritourism and indigenous tourism.

Angela Fa‘anunu, assistant professor of tourism at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is no stranger to teaching innovative strategies to her classes on sustainable tourism and business. Though the coronavirus has proven challenging due to the limitations of in-person education, Fa‘anunu is optimistic about teaching tourism during a global health crisis.

That may seem counterintuitive, as tourism has largely shut down throughout Hawai‘i with restrictions on visitors that have created economic shockwaves for residents.

However, Fa‘anunu sees the disruption as a potential time of reflection that will hopefully lead to more thorough planning strategies for Hawai‘i’s economic and cultural future. Her collaborations with various federal, state, and private agencies aim to increase agritourism on Hawai‘i Island, an approach she believes will create more resilient and economically stable Pacific communities.

A vision centered on agritourism and indigenous tourism

In the courses she teaches, Fa‘anunu challenges students to reimagine the conventional mass tourism industry in favor of alternative, more regenerative models centered around agritourism and indigenous tourism, based on relationships of reciprocity between hosts and visitors.

“Covid has created an awareness that perhaps the model we have for tourism isn’t the best one for our small islands,” she says. “Perhaps we need to find other ways of engaging with the visitor industry that build the resilience of our local communities, such as our local farmers.”

She believes the pandemic response has highlighted the state’s dependence on tourism and the need for local agriculture.

“To me, agritourism is a win-win situation but to develop this industry in Hawai‘i, we need to plan carefully,” she explains. “Allowing commercial activity on agricultural lands can be tricky so we need to ensure that they are protected and that we maintain the integrity and sense of place of our local communities while also enabling small farmers to succeed by being financially sustainable.”

She says planning is critical and needs to consider the next 100 years. “To plan for climate change, we cannot plan for five to 10 years from now. It has to be long-term.”

Fa‘anunu was raised in Tu‘anekivale, on the island of Vava‘u in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. She joined UH Hilo in 2019. She received her doctorate from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where her research focused on sustainable tourism development in Hawai`i and the Pacific Islands.

On the topic of sustainable tourism, Fa‘anunu says, “What does that even mean? What are we trying to sustain? The phrase is very vague, which creates many challenges for change. We also come with different lenses. Growing up on a small island with no electricity or running water gives me a certain reference for understanding sustainability that may be different from yours.”

Luckily for her sustainable tourism students last semester, when UH classes switched to web platforms due to the coronavirus, Fa‘anunu had already transitioned the class to a primarily online format the previous winter with much help from Cynthia Yamaguchi, the university’s online teaching and learning specialist who assists faculty design web-based courses.

“By the time covid happened, the students knew what to do because we had been doing it already,” Fa‘anunu explains. “After we came back from spring break [when the university transitioned to all online teaching], my students were used to the on-line platform. There was no confusion, and I feel like it was a good transition.”

Her students agree, with one stating in an anonymous survey taken last spring evaluating the success of faculty transitioning to online teaching that Fa‘anunu “did a great job with distance learning. I think the way she teaches students is the best I’ve seen and a great way for students to learn and understand the topics she goes over.”

Previously, before the pandemic caused a total shift to online teaching, Fa‘anunu took her classes to visit local farms. “I like my courses to be applied,” she says. “It’s about tapping into the expertise of different people” to stimulate critical thinking and community engagement, particularly with East Hawai‘i’s vibrant local agriculture scene.

The farming professor

Fa‘anunu herself offers integral expertise on agritourism as co-founder of Kaivao Farm in Pāhoehoe, just north of Hilo, which she says has a vision to cultivate Pacific resilience.

In 2016, Kaivao Farm won $20,000 in seed money as a first-place winner of the 2016 Mahi‘ai Match-Up Agricultural Business Plan Contest sponsored by Kamehameha Schools and the Pauahi Foundation. The farm also received an agricultural lease from Kamehameha Schools with up to five years of waived rent, and start-up seed money from the Pauahi Foundation.

“The winner of the first place $20,000 prize was Kaivao Farm, LLC. Utilizing traditional organic and sustainable agroforestry methods, Kaivao Farm plans to specialize in the cultivation of ʻulu and cassava on 9.5 acres in Pāhoehoe, just north of Hilo on Hawai‘i island.

Along with their main starch crops, team members Angela Faʻanunu, Kalisi Mausio, Keone Chin and Haniteli Faʻanunu will cultivate wauke, hala and other secondary crops for use in education and practice of traditional art-forms like kapa-making and ʻulana (weaving).

“Kaivao Farm will serve as a living classroom with a holistic, ʻāina-based approach, centered on the resources of Pāhoehoe ahapuaʻa” said Angela Faʻanunu with Kaivao Farm.

“We are guided by the vision of building capacity of our local communities by increasing access to healthy food and learning opportunities through practicing cultural traditions that maintain the integrity of the ʻāina and ourselves,” Faʻanunu added.”

The farm, independently owned and operated by Faʻanunu and her sister, Kalisi Mausio, subsequently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the capacity of agritourism for Hawai‘i county. This led to the development of the Hawai‘i Farm Trails mobile app, an electronic platform that connects visitors and residents to agricultural activities such as farm tours, farmer’s markets, agricultural festivals and events. “We really learned how important tourism is for small farms,” says Faʻanunu.

“What I love about agritourism is that it doesn’t necessarily impinge on Hawaiian culture,” Faʻanunu notes. “Every farm has its own unique story. We need to malama our host culture, and our tourism industry should be leading these initiatives.”

Cultivating new strategies during the pandemic

Now curbed from farm visits during the covid era, Fa‘anunu is turning toward admittance to international conferences and the potential to host overseas guest speakers.

“Students can attend talks and conferences across the world,” she says, from UH Mānoa’s Shidler College of Business’s regularly held webinars about the reopening of Hawai‘i’s tourism industry to business conferences like the Buzz Travel China Summit, where admission for students was free.

Her students this semester are learning how countries across the world are responding to the coronavirus pandemic and how to think critically of Hawai‘i’s global interconnectedness.

Though Fa‘anunu says her semester has been anything but easy juggling research, her courses, family life, and the difficulties all new faculty face in creating curriculum, her seamless integration of regional and global lenses gives her students the well-rounded perspective she hopes will be adopted by current and future generations to plan for better preparedness in the future.

“You can plan to plan or you can plan to act,” she says, noting that her goal is to inspire students with strategies that communities across the world are implementing to address shortcomings laid bare by the pandemic’s repercussions.

“Tourism is just one of these strategies,” she says. “But tourism has become such a prevalent strategy that it has overpowered everything else. Covid has shown us that perhaps we need to figure out those other strategies to make us more resilient.”

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