Few states are more dependent on tourism than Hawaii. There is only one, actually. Nevada’s visitor industry brings in 16% of its gross domestic product, but our islands are second, with 10% of GDP from tourism, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
That’s why it was stunning — though a rational decision, all the same — that Gov. David Ige threw the switch and, as forcefully as possible, turned off tourism for 30 days. The clock started with his announcement on Tuesday, and nobody really knows the full impact the coronavirus pandemic will have.
But clearly, it will be an acceleration of an already dismal, downward slide in economic prospects.
First of all, this was a necessary move. The bulk of the evidence has been that the coronavirus cases in Hawaii are closely linked to visitor arrivals, which is certainly not surprising. Slowing the spread of the COVID-19 infection must involve locking down the traffic coming into the state.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green, coordinator for the administration’s response to the pandemic, said the state would mandate a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals in Hawaii at the airports, visitors as well as returning residents.
Enforcing that plan, to be handled by the Department of Transportation Airports Division, will cost $1 million each month, according to the state Senate’s special committee on COVID-19. Further, the Harbors Division has barred most nonresident cruise ship passengers from disembarking, but on Friday did allow an injured passenger and spouse off the Maasdam, along with six Hawaii residents.
This is a restriction that has the support of the Honolulu City Council, which sent a letter to Ige supporting it, and was endorsed on Friday by Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
As disconcerting as all of that news may be, coming from a tourism-dependent state, it’s a critical communication the public needs to hear.
The message that should not be sent, however, is that Hawaii doesn’t want tourism.
There has been some serious venting about tourism as a threat, through the inevitable online comments posted in response to every official statement. Daily, the rhetoric on the web gets pretty mean-spirited against tourists, in short order.
Face to face, protesters on Molokai and Maui last week showed some of that same angst in picketing at the airports, carrying signs with assertions such as “You Are The Virus / #MauiIsClosed.”
And even from official sources, the communication has been crystal-clear, even if not hostile. “Kauai is on vacation!” the island’s Mayor Derek Kawakami declared in a statement.
Kawakami’s other action, to declare an islandwide curfew, 9 p.m. – 5 a.m. nightly, highlights the precarious condition of the Garden Island health-care system. None of the neighbor islands are amply equipped, but Kauai, with 111 licensed beds, nine intensive-care beds and 18 ventilators, is in the worst shape.
So yes, a temporary shutdown is warranted. But so is a reality check where tourism is concerned. The reality is that we need tourism here for the long-term, the current restrictions notwithstanding.
Let’s look at the facts, which are pretty scary. For starters, the Hale Koa Hotel — part of the Armed Forces Recreation Centers Resorts, a property with 818 rooms for active and retired military — closed its doors for now, in response to the pandemic. It’s certainly possible that some private resorts will do the same.
The American Hotel and Lodging Association last week issued its latest Oxford Economics study, projecting an estimated 46,778 jobs to be lost over the next six months, with a worst-case scenario of 57,173 jobs. That means the shedding of employees could amount to 1 in 4 hotel workers.
That’s a chilling figure — not only for the hotel workers themselves, but for all who are affected through the economic ripple effects.
And that’s likely to be everyone, in some degree. Individuals may not work in the visitor industry, but some within their extended circle of family and friends surely do. Perhaps these critics work for businesses, and these tourism workers are their former customers, who no longer have money to spend there.
Of course, there is some basis for pushback against the tourism industry, pre-coronavirus. There’s frustration with it spilling into residential neighborhoods with illegal vacation rentals, a problem that finally has prompted needed regulation.
There’s worry about the impact of increased visitor traffic on precious natural resources, and more restrictive access to trails and other assets at last is being implemented.
And should leaders redouble efforts to diversify the economy? Of course, they should.
But tourism is, and will always be, a natural fit for Hawaii — and its citizens can’t forget that part of their tradition includes a sharing ethic.
This is a global economy, a global community. Hawaii residents are part of it all: We also enjoy traveling, and not only to Las Vegas and the mainland, but to Asia, the Pacific and elsewhere in the world.
Before we pile on the tourists, let’s remember: We are tourists, too.
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