Wednesday, November 25, 2015         


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Deference to tourism is wrecking what makes Hawaii special

By Cynthia Oi


Richard Lim raised some eyebrows if not heart rates when he bluntly gave voice to a reality not often brought up during light luncheon speeches in convivial downtown penthouse dining clubs.

Not that the business leaders he addressed had not encountered assessments like his previously. Members of the Hawaii Economic Association should know better than most that Hawaii, as Lim declared, cannot count on tourism to move its economy into wider prosperity.

A few at the Plaza Club said they were surprised, but more likely they weren't expecting state government's top economic dog to say out loud what they already know. Still, it was disturbing to hear.

Tourism has been long and stubbornly Hawaii's main reason for being. Almost every dollar spent and collected funnels through the industry. Major decisions about land use and development, natural resources, taxation, transportation and other matters are heavily filtered through the sieve of tourism.

For tourism, we try to hide the needy who live at the edge of society, chase away "undesirable elements," as Lim described them, from inhabiting parks and other public lands.

For tourism, we will fight futilely against unceasing ocean waves to restore beaches so visitors can gaze at stretches of white sand from balconies in too-high-rising hotels that block the views of coastlines for others.

We will pay, or "bribe," as Gov. Neil Abercrombie described the Pro Bowl deal, $4 million to the NFL for a colorfully staged all-star football game at an artfully disguised falling-down junk stadium.

We will build hotels in rural districts to spare tourists a long, though beautifully scenic drive from the North Shore and Laie to Waikiki even though allowing such expansion will damage what attracted them in the first place.

We installed parking lots at one of the last undeveloped coasts on Oahu to ease the visitor experience even though their numbers devalue the resource itself.

We have tourism and little else.

Lim's remarks forced again an acknowledgement of our predicament as Hawaii continually casts about for something else to sustain an unstable economy.

We have turned under acres and acres of fine, productive agriculture land that could provide residents with a measure of food security to feed instead housing projects and shopping mall development, relying on real estate sales and consumer spending as if there are no limits there.

Lim, like his predecessors, talked about growth in technology, but high-tech industries such as renewable energy research and development have not materialized.

Lack of initiative among government and tourism-centric business leaders stymied a potentially successful industry and allowed it to pass us by.

As far as continued economic expansion, maybe the time has come to pull back and to live within the means of our resources.

Maybe more and bigger isn't better or even necessary. Providing the best we can for ourselves with what we have seems a stronger strategy for the future.

At the same time, it is the sensible means by which to preserve the islands for the enjoyment of residents and visitors without having to detach the umbilical cord of tourism.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at

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