Where do we go from here? As tourism restarts in Hawaii it is clear we may have lost the opportunity to reframe Hawaii’s relationship to its primary industry, tourism. While there have been signs of resistance to reopening on the neighbor islands, there was little sign of this in Honolulu until tourists actually returned to Waikiki, not wearing masks.
Hawaii’s slow response to the pandemic is structural, bureaucratic and political. The political and bureaucratic dimensions have been well advertised. The structural dimension, much less so.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the state organized a future-oriented reopening panel. It was a good idea. The panel identified transitional workforce modernization, economic diversification, the development of emerging industries, and long-term resiliency as key to economic recovery. These ideas were framed in the context of consciously reducing tourism’s weight in the local economy and society. Unfortunately the panel’s reimagining of Hawaii appears to have disappeared in the heat of the struggle to contain the virus.
Not everyone in the state, in government, industry or community, was so wrapped up in combatting the virus that progress couldn’t have been made. This was critical not just because people died, which is tragic, but also because Hawaii’s economy was hit harder than almost anywhere, and that is entirely due to the state’s reliance on tourism.
What do we do now? Tourists are streaming in. The airlines have restarted their schedules. The hotels have implemented their reopenings. The tourism industry has planned for the post-pandemic world. Have the rest of us planned for 10 million tourists? What precludes that as Hawaii is touted as a safe place to travel? There are no policy mechanisms in place to prevent a return to 10 million tourists — nor to the economic and social inequality that tourism has bred. In Hawaii, local government decisions have historically been marginalized by decisions about tourism (and the military) made by their outside owners. Nothing has changed despite the pandemic.
That we lost these months is unfortunate, but it doesn’t need to be the end of the story. Hawaii has a chance to have a “better” tourism, to share its benefits more broadly and to distribute its costs more appropriately. There needs to be action before more investment in hotels and associated businesses is made, before more high-end real estate development, before more small (and large) business closures and before the social and economic conditions facing too many people in Hawaii return to “normal.”
I’m not someone who has been involved in local politics, but I’ve lived here a long time. And I’m worried about our future unless we seize this moment. Measures to recalibrate Hawaii’s economy and society should include:
>> Reckoning seriously and concretely with Native Hawaiian rights
>> Rebuilding incomes and reducing inequality through enhanced minimum wages and taxation of high-end real estate transactions.
>> Reducing the number of tourists and increasing the return to Hawaii with higher user and accommodation fees for tourists.
>> Improving housing options for low-income and poorly housed (including homeless) residents by converting empty hotels into rental apartments.
>> Enforcing permitting, zoning and environmental laws, while at the same time increasing responsiveness of state and local government in permitting for appropriate construction.
>> Enforcing transparency and accountability throughout state and county government.
It will take conscious political leadership and involvement to move forward. Waiting while (if) tourism numbers increase back to 10 million will be too late. The pre-COVID-19 status quo simply isn’t acceptable after the travails of the past seven months.
Sam Pooley, who holds a Ph.D. in political science, is retired from a career that concluded as director of a federal ecosystem research center in Hawaii.