As leaders from across the country land in Honolulu for the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week, some are getting flack from their constituents back home for visiting the island destination.

New Jersey officials were slammed by for going on what it described as a vacation.  

“Yes, for the mere price of absolutely free, thanks to you,” the editorial board wrote to New Jersey taxpayers, “they could get stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and Honolulu coastline, soak in the sun on a balcony overlooking the beach, sample five outdoor swimming pools, lei-making, hula and ukulele classes.” 

The mayor of Gainesville, Florida received dozens of complaints that he is wasting taxpayer dollars on the trip. One man even trolled the mayor at a city meeting by wearing an aloha shirt and offering him sunscreen, The Gainesville Sun reported.

Some mayors opted to stay home rather than face the backlash. 

“I didn’t want to hear people’s outcry,” Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young told the Baltimore Business Journal

Hilton Hawaiian Village entrance. 29 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki will host the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Honolulu this week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The criticism highlights a longstanding perception problem Hawaii has in attracting conferences and conventions. The state is expensive to visit and tourism officials say they work to counter the idea that Hawaii is better suited for pleasure than business.

“Hawaii is a victim of its own success as a leisure destination,” said James Mak, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Hawaii. “If Hawaii weren’t as much of a desirable place to visit, this boondoggle thing would not come up.”

The challenge is not unique to Hawaii, according to Ed Hawkins, executive director of the Honolulu office of economic development. 

“It’s always something in the minds of resort destinations like this,” he said.

Honolulu has a lot more than the beach to offer the roughly 230 mayors convening at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, according to city and tourism officials.

“One of the things that gets lost about Hawaii when you see sand and surf is the fact that beyond our beautiful mountains, our incredible oceanscape and fluffy white sand on Waikiki beach, Honolulu is a major city,” said Kekoa McClellan, Hawaii spokesman for the American Hotel Lodging Association.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell will speak at the conference about renewable energy, homelessness, the impact of climate change on coastal cities and encouraging civic engagement among youth. Other mayors will present on matters affecting their communities, such as a water-focused panel including Flint, Michigan Mayor Karen Weaver. 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell Honolulu Hale1. 16 feb 2017
Mayor Kirk Caldwell will host the first U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Honolulu since the 1960s. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Attendees will also hear remarks from second lady of the United States Karen Pence and David Hogg, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida and co-founder of the anti-gun violence group March For Our Lives.

Caroline Kennedy, attorney, diplomat and daughter of John F. Kennedy will deliver an address more than five decades after her father spoke about local leadership at the same conference in Honolulu in 1963. 

“We’re coming here to work,” said U.S. Conference of Mayors CEO and President Tom Cochran, explaining that the agenda allows little time for relaxation. “We do not apologize for being here. We celebrate being here.”

Still, it’s hard for some mainlanders to imagine their representatives getting work done in Honolulu, said Mak, who wrote the book Developing a Dream Destination: Tourism and Tourism Policy Planning in Hawaii.

“You have politicians and public employees using taxpayer dollars to travel to an exotic destination that most taxpayers cannot afford themselves,” he said. “They don’t believe that their representatives are going to do business in Hawaii.”

The mayors of Gainesville and Ocala in Florida faced an 11-part questionnaire from a local broadcaster about their trip including queries about the class of their plane tickets, the cost of their lodging and how residents will benefit from the trip.

In response to a question about the “message” his Hawaiian trip sends to taxpayers, Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn office’s noted that Hawaii is “one of the 50 states of the union” and that Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell raised private money — $3.3 million, according to Caldwell’s office — to host the event. 

“No one asked these questions when he went to Boston, Indianapolis, San Francisco or Miami Beach for past conferences,” Guinn’s office told the ABC affiliate, WCJB

Marketing Hawaii as a place that can host business activities is a matter of presenting the state’s qualities as assets, not hindrances, said Mary Neister, who is in charge of attracting meetings and conventions to the Aloha State for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

She tells potential visitors that when a conference is held in Hawaii, attendance is often higher than it would be otherwise. In fact, Cochran said attendance for this year’s conference in Honolulu is up over previous years.

“It serves a purpose to mix business with pleasure,” Neister said. “One of our sayings is: your attendees will come back better. Hawaii does rejuvenate, restore and send people home with a better frame of mind so they can work in a more productive manner.”

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