Are we developing too much too quickly in Hawaii? And is space exploration Hawaii’s new frontier?

This is the second of Civil Beat’s two-part Q&A with former Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi. In the first Q&A, Ariyoshi talked about how the East-West Center and Hawaii play a role in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region.

Later this month, the East-West Center will present Ariyoshi, its former board chair, with its Asia Pacific Community Building Award. Ariyoshi’s accomplishments include helping to form the first Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, which led to the creation of the center’s Pacific Islands Development Program.

In our final Q&A, the governor shares his views on issues that developed during his time as governor (1974-1986). They include tourism, resource management and alternative renewable energy.

While in office, Ariyoshi was instrumental in the development of the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research. Based in Honolulu, PICHTR continues its work today.

Finally, the governor also talks about his vision for the state in space exploration, an idea he thinks others are finally catching on to.

Civil Beat: The Hawaii Tourism Authority was certainly involved with the welcoming of diplomats here for APEC. And as you know, the HTA and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau have made a concerted effort to bring international meetings here — particularly from East Asia. Do you think progress has been made in this regard?

Gov. George Ariyoshi: Yes. You see, integration becomes very important. There are several parts to it. The East-West Center can do a good job of making people understand and to feel that they want to come because they can have cultural exchange here. They can learn about somebody else (and share their culture). And that makes people want to come to Hawaii for that purpose.

Some people only want to come for relaxation. Other people come looking at what kind of business opportunities they can get involved in. So, there are all these different kinds of things that tourism has a great impact on. What the tourism agencies are involved in is important because they are looking at, fundamentally, how can (tourists) get comfort when they come here — the hotel side, the kinds of things they can do to enjoy themselves. But it’s also how they can make it possible for them to come with federal customs and immigration people, to make it easier for them.

Such as the visa process?

That’s right. And I think it’s all coming together.

There is another perception about Hawaii, that if a company brings their employees here that it’s a boondoggle. Not just companies — the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just came under fire from Republicans for having a meeting on Maui. How do you deal with that perception?

I think we do it constantly. Things like APEC being here I think help to (dispel) that perception. But it’s a very difficult perception to overcome. And maybe it’s because — not jealousy, but because people wish they could come.

It is a lovely place to visit. But if you are here for a meeting, you are in a conference room all day. Maybe you are doing a little shopping. …

Which you do everywhere else! You enjoy yourself everywhere else that you go. So, it’s not just in Hawaii. I’ve attended many international meetings here, and, boy, they work hard.

Continuing along those same lines, you were instrumental in developing our relations with Japan during your terms as governor. Of course, Japan has a visa waiver to travel here. South Korea now has that. Everyone talks about China as being the next Japan for Hawaii tourism, 100 times the power because of the population. Do you see China actually replicating the Japanese experience?

I don’t think I want to see a replication, and I think we need to look at who comes, what they do here, and then look at what the benefit to Hawaii might be. It has to be, I think, in the context of the visitor coming and the kinds of things that they do and how much money they spend.

For example, when the Japanese were coming here, I used to go to the tourism groups and meetings for the National Governors Association, and I used to talk about how in Hawaii we made it easier for the Japanese visitors to come. And they spent three times what the average visitor spent.

We know that there are many, many Chinese that have become very wealthy, and we want them to come to Hawaii. But we also want to look at what they spend that is an economic benefit. And I think that it is on that basis that we decide how much we apportion (for marketing), how much we promote.

You’re suggesting a balance. We have seven million tourists that come right now annually. Can we handle more than seven million? Are you concerned about that?

Yes, I am. I’ve always talked about carrying capacity. As a matter of fact, I’ve used the words “carrying capacity” on almost everything we do. You know, when I became governor, 15 years after statehood — 1974 — I wanted to look at what happened during that 15-year period. And I looked at it and I was amazed at the population growth. We were growing at about the rate of 2.5 percent a year, compared to the national rate of eight-tenths of 1 percent. Three times as rapidly. I became very concerned about that. And I asked myself, “Gee, we are an island state, other states next to each other can overflow, but we can’t overflow into the ocean.” So, everything has to be contained here.

And so I felt that it was very important to take a look at the growth that can take place. “What’s our carrying capacity for population? For transportation? Tourism also — how many people can we have here and make people have a good experience so that they want to come back to Hawaii? How many hotels rooms do we have, how much do we have Waikiki growing? What about the neighbor islands?”

I feel very strongly that we need to look at our carrying capacity and how everyone can have a good visit — beyond which it begins to deteriorate. Where they start to complain, “Oh, I went to the hotel, so crowded! I went to Waikiki and we couldn’t move around.” You know? And that’s the worst kind of reputation for us to develop.

And to the credit of the tourism bureau, they have begun to look at that also.

Land and Use

You talked about looking back from statehood until 1974. You left office in 1986, some 25 years ago. Looking back, what has surprised you most about Hawaii’s direction since that time — things for the better but also things that give you concern?

Well, I’ve looked at some things that are very important to retain in Hawaii. Agriculture is one. I became very concerned because, the time that I was governor, the plantations and sugar and pineapple fields started to go out. I’ve looked at those lands being changed. The last two Land Use decisions —

Hoopili and Koa Ridge?

Right, right. Uh-huh.

Did that concern you?

Oh, very much so. And I don’t know why they did it at the same time. Why they couldn’t have scheduled it (differently), if that was necessary. You know, do it one at a time. So, I am very concerned about the loss of agricultural lands.

I’m also very concerned about the Land Use Commission moving in that kind of direction. At one time, my appointments to the Land Use Commission were people who were knowledgable about land, but (they had) a community interest also. Now, you have people who are experts in land development, and we’ve lost, I think, some of the need for us to keep things more balanced.

We still import so much of our energy and food. Is that a disappointment to you?

Yes. I think we need to grow more, and to export more, too. We processed sugar, we processed pineapple into cans, extending the shelf life so that we could sell it outside (Hawaii). And I think that’s what we have to do with agriculture today. Produce for our own consumption, but I’d like also for us to look at what kind of things we can grow here in Hawaii and that we can process, creating jobs in that process.

For example, one time I was in Japan and picked up a bottle of jam or jelly. A bottle like that — $20! I thought, “How can you buy jam at $20?” I inquired, and the person told me that it was a specialty item. They told me it was a fruit with lots of vitamins and honey. It’s a health drink, and people don’t put it on bread. They told me they take a spoonful every day for health reasons. Whether that has validity or not, I don’t know. But I thought to myself, “Why can’t Hawaii do something very similar?”

In what areas do you think we have seen positive gains for Hawaii — areas where we perhaps are going in the right direction?

Well, I think tourism is in the right direction. And we started looking at technology. We kind of pulled back, and then we started to move ahead. We always talk about wanting more technology, and we’ve had some things get started here, but we’ve lost them because they weren’t really appropriate things to remain here. They felt maybe they had better connections in Silicon Valley.

When we look at technology, we have to ask the question, “Is this something that really belongs here? In the long haul, will it be here in Hawaii?” And there are several fields I think that fit. The health field, people looking at our medical school, at Hawaii as a clean place where they can come and get some treatment here. As a result, technology research in the health area becomes something that can last. Something that has a tie to Asia and to Hawaii and to the mainland. I think we have seen some of those things that have been very appropriate and very good.

How about renewable energy? Have you been pleased, for example, with what has happened with Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii Authority? Or have we moved in fits and starts?

NELHA was created during my time. And we worked hard on it. We looked at OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion). … We thought about how we could use that for things other than energy. But it’s very expensive to bring up the cold water, nutrient rich water, just for electricity. But we created abalone farms and for ogo. We even had a salmon farm out there.

We also created HOST (Hawaii Ocean Sciences and Technology park) and that was a big area. And we talked then about NELHA and the opportunity for R&D to take place, so that companies ready to go commercial would have a place right next door, land that would be available. I think the mistake was to put it together with NELHA, and now NELHA is responsible for land management and for getting the maximum return. So, the focus now is not only R&D but the land. They had been separate.

Space and Aloha

To close, I’d like to talk about an issue that you are close to — space travel, which includes tourism and business. You have great dreams for Hawaii’s role in it. I know the Legislature is starting to recognize this and to move some initiatives in that regard. Are we starting to catch on to this idea?

Yes, we are. You know, we had a U.S.-Japan space technology group, and it was very important because space research and activity is so expensive now. You can’t have one country only doing this. And so we had collaboration between Japan and the United States.

I was the advisor to that group for, oh, 20-25 years, I guess. And in that process we had Japan and the U.S. talking about space activities. Doing that, NASA came in, private sector people came in, businesses started to join in that effort and discussion. And I pushed for Hawaii. I felt very strong about this because — Japan and the United States — we’re right in the middle! And how nice to come to Hawaii.

We had many ideas that came out of it. I went to the Legislature and said, “Activities we had here that didn’t belong, we lost it. But this is one that belongs here in Hawaii.”

Why does it belong here?

Because we have Barking Sands on Kauai. Because we have the telescopes. Because we have the soil conditions on the Big Island that resemble outer space, so much so that we have had people pick up Hawaiian soil on the Big Island, take it to wherever they are doing R&D as a backup to the kind of R&D they are doing in space. NASA believes Hawaii can play a very important role.

The private sector, even now they come to me and say, “Oh, what can we do?” They want to push Hawaii to get more and more of these things. At one time you had to have launching sites, and each group that wanted to launch made their own. But today you don’t need that kind of launching site. You can put a launching pad on an airplane, fly it out of the airport here and then launch it from up in the air. And the ocean, it divides us from the rest of the people, so there is no danger.

So, Hawaii really is the ideal place for this. And I tell the legislators this, and they have really come a long way. But I tell them, “Don’t lose this — even though we have this advantage.” We can lose it if we don’t act properly.

You mentioned about Hawaii in the middle. As you know, with the jets they have today, you can fly over Hawaii and not stop anymore. Is there a concern that Hawaii may be forgotten? Will we continue to be just another leisure stop?

Well, those that were stopping for transportation, they weren’t staying long. It was only a night stop or for refueling. I don’t miss that. What I want to be sure is that we don’t find the people losing an interest in coming to Hawaii and to do business here and to have a good time here.

People get concerned about other places competing for tourists. But, you know, so long as they have the aloha spirit — that’s something they don’t understand, don’t have outside. You can go anywhere — and I have gone to many places — and you don’t have the feel of the people.

You’ve noticed it when you travel?

Oh, very definitely. The people here in Hawaii are very, very warm. And by that warm nature, I think we extend aloha and good feelings to people who come to Hawaii. And it’s very different.

I had a lady who wrote me a letter when I was governor. And she said, “I had to write to you. I didn’t know who to write to.” And she told me she stopped somebody in Waikiki to ask for directions to a place. And a person stopped and talked to her, but she looked very confused. So he said, “Wait a minute. I’m going to the bank now, I’m just going to make a deposit, but I am going to come out and I’ll take you there. So, please wait here, don’t move. Stay right here.”

And he went and then came out and he took her to the place. She wrote me and said, “I could not believe this happened to me. Now I understand what aloha is all about. In any other place, if I ask direction, people would not stop even for directions. This man was very patient. He stopped, listened to me and told me where to go. And for him to tell me that he wanted to take me because I didn’t understand, to me this is an experience I could not get anywhere else the world.”

And she said, “I just want you to know how good I feel about Hawaii because of that experience.” And I think it happens every day.

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