When Keith Vieira, a long-time Hawaii tourism executive appeared on a panel at the East-West Center last week, he was glad to hear from a fellow panelist that the likelihood of Hawaii getting nuked by North Korea was zero.
In a market where 98 percent of visitors are leisure travelers, he said, any risk of a nuclear attack from Kim Jong Un could be bad news for the visitor industry.
“Even a 1 percent chance would easily stop the flow” of tourists to Hawaii, said Vieira, a former senior vice president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. “You’re simply not going to travel to places where you’re concerned about safety, and if you’re an Asian traveler, it’s multiplied quite a lot.”
Vieira’s comments underscore a potentially big issue facing executives in Hawaii’s key industry: even if the risk of a nuclear attack is low, the risk is greater that fears of an attack can drive tourists away. So far, executives say, that hasn’t happened.
“We’re definitely monitoring it,” said Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, which works with the state’s Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Talwar said the bureau regularly checks in with travel wholesalers and other customers, scans social media and generally watches for signs that negative news is alarming travelers.
So what have they seen?
“Fortunately, nothing yet,” Talwar said.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority, meanwhile, is stressing the low risks of attack.
“It is important for leisure and business travelers to know that the threat of a missile attack against Hawaii by North Korea is a very unlikely possibility at this time, according to the latest information provided by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency,” said George D. Szigeti, HTA’s president and chief executive.
“We encourage travelers and groups to go forward with confidence in the planning and booking of their trips to the Hawaiian Islands.”
It’s not that there hasn’t been alarming news about Hawaii getting hit with a nuclear bomb. Last week, the University of Hawaii made international headlines after university officials sent students and faculty an email with instructions on what to do in case of a nuclear strike. That followed a flurry of national news in September, when Hawaii legislators held a secret meeting to prepare for a nuclear attack by North Korea.
Vieira says there’s nothing wrong with lawmakers discussing planning for the worst, but holding a secret meeting to do so doesn’t instill confidence among potential travelers, he said.
“When you make it secret is when people get nervous,” he said.
One such case of nerves showed up in a thread on the Tripadvisor.com website last month in a post titled, “nervous about world events.”
“We are planning our 35th anniversary trip to Hawaii in October,” wrote a user named romantictravel from the Chicago area. ‘With today’s threat that an H bomb could be tested in the Pacific Ocean, I’m getting quite nervous. What are others planning on doing – stay with original plans on going or rescheduling when tempers calm?”
The vast majority of responses shrugged off the supposed threat.
“When the name-calling, insults, and threats started becoming more frequent and outlandish just prior to our end-of-August Maui trip, we had a moment of wondering if we should cancel,” said a user named Greenvalleyfun. “We didn’t and had such a wonderful time!”
Not everyone is so blasé. Riki Ellison is the is the founder and chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for stronger U.S. missile defense systems. Ellison has been urging the enhancement of the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, now a test site, to serve as a defense site to augment protection provided to Hawaii by the U.S. Northern Command.
Ellison said that even if the likelihood of a nuclear attack is small, the magnitude of harm caused by a nuclear weapon is so great that it makes sense to mitigate the risk with an upgraded system. He likened government officials not wanting to upgrade missile defenses on Kauai for fear of scaring tourists to the fictional officials of a seaside town in the movie “Jaws.”
“It’s exactly like ‘Jaws,’” he said. “There’s a shark in the water, and the guy doesn’t want to close the beach.”
“It’s much worse than ‘Jaws,’” he added. “It’s not just one person being eaten by a shark.”
So far, the numbers show travelers are not worried. Visitors to Hawaii spent $1.39 billion in August 2017, an increase of 6.1 percent compared to August 2016, according to HTA’s latest numbers. Total visitor arrivals rose 4.8 percent to 818,581 visitors in August.
“It’s exactly like ‘Jaws.’ There’s a shark in the water, and the guy doesn’t want to close the beach.” — Defense industry lobbyist Riki Ellison
Trevor Ozawa, the Honolulu City Council member who represents Waikiki, said Hawaii’s numbers are up because, in an increasingly unsafe world, Hawaii is viewed as safe.
“I think that’s the point,” he said. “It’s all relative.”
Ozawa agreed with Vieira that the idea of a nuclear strike on Hawaii is far-fetched.
Vieira said people can posit any number of hypotheticals to worry about. He pointed to comments made last week by Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, who said the risk of an attack by North Korea is virtually nil.
“Our goal is to really stick to the facts,” Vieira said.