The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this week puts Hawaii on the world stage like never before, giving the islands the chance to live up to the oft-cited, seldom-realized mantra of the "Crossroads of the Pacific."
Local APEC boosters hope the event, which runs Tuesday through Sunday, will yield economic and political dividends that enhance Hawaii’s image as not only a tourist destination, but also as a serious place to do business.
While the summit’s many meetings, culminating with next weekend’s gathering of President Barack Obama and 20 other world leaders, could help promote economic and political stability for the Asia-Pacific region, don’t expect any earth-shattering diplomatic breakthroughs or treaties, experts say.
"Many people have this vision that this is a place where leaders get together and hammer out a treaty all sitting at a table. It’s not. Someone once described it more accurately as a speed-dating service for leaders," said Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Center and a member of the APEC 2011 Hawaii Host Committee.
Most of the real work of APEC takes place at earlier site meetings, he said. APEC Leaders’ Week is more of an "opportunity for leaders to calm things down and kick the can down the road a bit and get over a nasty patch in their relations," he said. "It’s something that really contributes to conflict resolution. When leaders meet, they want to have good meetings; they don’t want the story to be Leader X meets Leader Y and they couldn’t get along."
For Hawaii it will be the largest gathering of world leaders in state history. The 21 leaders bring with them an estimated 20,000 delegates, staff, family and journalists. If all goes without a major hitch, the summit will provide invaluable international exposure to a visitor industry desperate to expand its reputation beyond sun and fun.
But the potential long-term payoff comes at a short-term price for local residents as the event will create an unprecedented array of security restrictions and road closings. It will be a logistical headache especially for people who are trying to move in and out of high-profile security zones around Waikiki, Ala Moana and Ko Olina. APEC will snarl traffic and limit access to some streets, public places and parking spots. It has even displaced several Waikiki events, including the annual World Invitational Hula Festival.
SECURITY will be particularly tight around the Hale Koa Hotel on Saturday and the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa at Ko Olina on Sunday, when Obama will host the 20 other leaders. Traffic will be restricted to law enforcement and public safety vehicles. Pedestrian traffic will be limited to residents and business owners and employees in the secure areas. Government-issued photo identifications, such as a driver’s license, will be required to gain access.
"This is not a one-time thing, it’s a chance to look in the mirror and get better as a destination. … We are positioning Hawaii to be the place where the world meets."
Federal, state and city officials have acknowledged the inconveniences but asked the community to show its aloha to APEC guests. In the end, APEC will be worth the hassle that it took to get it here and pull it off, they say.
Attracting APEC wasn’t a slam dunk for Hawaii. Some might see obvious advantages in Obama’s ties to Hawaii, where he was born and raised, but the executives and officials who organized the state’s bid for the event weren’t sure how that would play out.
"If he had to make the decision, we were worried that maybe he’d think it would look like he was favoring his hometown," Morrison said. "But if it was recommended to him, I thought that he would choose it."
Hawaii, which submitted its APEC bid in January 2009, resolved to use the event not only to bring glory to Hawaii, but to improve it, said Mike McCartney, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and a member of the APEC Hawaii Host Committee.
"This is not a one-time thing. It’s a chance to look in the mirror and get better as a destination," McCartney said. "The community attention on the meetings business and how we treat our guests, whether working with them or seeing them on the street, it helps everyone in Hawaii. We are positioning Hawaii to be the place where the world meets."
To get the event here, Honolulu faced stiff competition from cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco that were all far more experienced in handling large intergovernmental meetings.
While San Francisco’s bid was the most aggressive, it lacked the political backing and cohesion of the Hawaii bid, Morrison said. Honolulu’s multicultural makeup and positioning in the region along with its military presence, centrally located government resources and concentrated hotel corridor also was appealing, Morrison said.
The other thing Hawaii had going for it was enthusiasm, he said.
"Lack of experience might have been against us. However, because we had never had a meeting like this in terms of scale, it created a sense of enthusiasm in the community at large that just wasn’t true of the other destinations. For Los Angeles or San Francisco, this would have been just another ho-hum affair, but here we knew it would have a much bigger impact on our economy."
Once the APEC 2011 Hawaii Host Committee was off and running, it helped spur more than $137 million in public and private projects to spruce up Honolulu for the 20,000 visitors who are expected to pump an estimated $120 million into Hawaii’s economy.
"The real impact of APEC is the chance to show the city in all its glory and the dollars that come after it," said Jerry Westenhaver, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa. "We should get a few years’ ride just from all the footage of blue skies and palm trees. That’s why cities pay all the money for the Super Bowl. That’s why we want APEC here."
Star-Advertiser reporters Dan Nakaso and Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.