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Editorial | Island Voices

Hawaii could be fallback site for firms in Japan

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After the March 11 Great Sendai/Northern Japan earthquake/tsunami, thousands of information technology and finance expatriate managers in Japan dispersed to nearby Asian cities like Taipei or Seoul.

Barely a week after the quake, the Hong Kong government created an expedited work permit program allowing staff of multinational financial institutions in Japan to transfer to Hong Kong.

In other words, a Goldman Sachs Tokyo office manager could relocate hassle-free to Hong Kong and hire local people (and pay Hong Kong taxes).

If the Hawaii state government acted along similar lines, Gov. Neil Abercrombie would have phoned the CEOs of U.S. firms based in Japan to relocate their U.S. staff to Hawaii, and simultaneously lobbied U.S. agencies to expedite visas for foreign national managers to move to Hawaii. This would have been the unexpected chance to transform Hawaii as the mid-Pacific business/financial/IT hub and hire many University of Hawaii graduates in finance, Japanese and software. True, immigration and visa regulations fall under U.S. federal jurisdiction, yet the state has an unprecedented budget shortfall as high as $1.3 billion (before the earthquake/tsunami) and if this extraordinary figure does not call for "out-of-the-box" measures, what does?

After the terrible earthquake/tsunami, Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy. If the small Japanese island of Kyushu was independent, its gross domestic product would be equivalent to Australia or Canada.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, this year began on a cautious uplift: In January, total Hawaii visitor expenditures rose 19.8 percent to $1.2 billion, and total visitor arrivals increased 12.2 percent.

For January, higher daily Japanese visitor spending ($288 per person, on average, versus $150 a day for West Coast visitors) and increased arrivals contributed to a 34 percent jump in total Japanese visitor spending, to $177.8 million.

March 11 was the global economic game-changer. With turmoil throughout the Japan economy, what Japanese family can think of a Hawaii vacation spending $262 per visitor daily when car assembly or consumer electronics jobs are in jeopardy? JAL just announced Hawaii flight cuts from 21 a week to 14 a week. It is not rocket science to see an impact at Ala Moana Center and to the state unemployment rate.

Of course, Hawaii should respond with respect and compassion regarding the tragic deaths and missing in the northern Japan/Tohoku region. Hawaii should send volunteers (many who speak some Japanese) to work alongside aid workers struggling to restore normal life in the coastal communities.

Also, at the appropriate time Hawaii should bring hula troupes to Tohoku. The uplift of Hawaiian songs and dancing shall remind Japanese of the healing powers of Hawaii’s ocean and mountains.

But these supportive activities are dwarfed by huge, intense work required to restore the Japan visitors count and also to bring new jobs, like capturing U.S. financial firms relocating operations outside Japan to Hawaii.

Gov. Abercrombie should be meeting daily with the one state agency that can tackle this "perfect storm" of economic crisis: the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, since it is the agency tasked with increasing business activities in Hawaii.

Ideally, every dollar spent in state promotion and programs should yield millions in new business revenues, new start-ups and new jobs.

The question is: What is the post-Japan earthquake/tsunami plan to grow the Hawaii economy, and what are the necessary steps that must be executed to achieve success?

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