I would venture to say my entire adult life I have heard elected officials and candidates for office talk about the need to diversify Hawaii’s economy. That statement can be found in almost every candidate’s election platform, regardless of party affiliation.

Yet our economy has not diversified post World War II — in fact, we went the other direction with the demise of agriculture. Why is this?

The late UH Professor Ira Rohter taught his students to think about the history of Hawaii not in terms of systems of governance, but rather in economic systems. It turns out those two are intertwined, but actually it’s the economic system that determines the system of governance, not the other way around.

An economic system that is “working” will find ways to influence, if not outright infiltrate, the government to assure its perpetuation. This is colloquially known as the rich get richer.

When an economic system starts to falter and another one wishes to displace it, it will similarly exert itself onto and into the political system (see the overthrow of 1893). That is why diversification has not occurred. Despite election year rhetoric, the current winners under our economic system risk becoming losers should we diversify, so they find discreet ways to prevent it.

But maybe, just maybe, Covid-19 suddenly blew that “kayfabe” up, laying bare society’s vulnerabilities for all of us to see. Perhaps it also gave us a once in a generation chance to build a better, just, equitable, and more responsible economic system. I am not the first person to suggest this, but I wanted to offer concrete suggestions.

Visitors frolic at Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head as a backdrop.
Visitors frolic at Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head as a backdrop in December 2018. Hawaii must no longer rely on tourism on a mass scale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

First thing first, we need to talk about the 1,200 pound gorilla in the room: mass tourism.

Mass tourism fails most cost-benefit analysis, but precious few government officials will ever admit that outright. The reason is the resources it takes up compared to the jobs and benefits it provides for most of us do not pencil out. It drives up crime, environmental degradation, demand for illegal TVUs, and cultural suppression/appropriation.

It is time for us to abandon this mode of tourism. In its place, we can develop niche tourism. This could be sports, health, or cultural based tourism.

The key is less people visiting who spend a similar amount of total money. This would still mean future calamities, such as pandemics, wars and terrorist attacks, and economic downturns could severely depress our economy with very little warning. So we need to grow other sectors of our economy that are more resistant to sudden downturns in leisure travel. I suggest three.

Asia-Pacific Nexus

Number one, we ought to be a world leader in education and research. Our location as the nexus between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific makes us a natural fit for this, and our attractive quality of life should attract world class scholars and researchers to our shores. Tele-education is going to be in high demand going forward; we are also uniquely positioned for that due to our location and time zone — especially when compared to someone on the East Coast.

We ought to be a world leader in education and research.

Secondly, that also holds true for health and medicine. With our year round fantastic weather we should be a leader in this area. Would you rather spend a few winter months rehabbing in Honolulu or Chicago? Tele-health is going to be in high demand and Hawaii can take advantage of our location. One of my best friends is originally from the East Coast and has been a Honolulu-based tele-radiologist for years, serving hospital emergency rooms from all around the world in any one shift.

And finally, I believe we need to cultivate large scale agricultural hemp. This would help to protect our remaining agricultural land and we could grow a local manufacturing industry around it.

It’s even possible we might be able to export hemp or its products for a profit — remember those cargo ships are all leaving our ports empty for the most part. Of course if we ever legalize marijuana the potential for agriculture moves to another level beyond hemp.

I put these ideas out with the hope they spark a public discussion on what we want our economy to look like two years from now and beyond. I hope once the public reaches a consensus, it puts pressure on candidates and more importantly government officials to make this happen.

Hawaii has survived economic system transitions before, and this time it should be driven from the bottom up. Let’s collectively embrace a better future for us all!

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About the Author

  • Bryan Mick
    Born and raised in Kailua, Bryan Mick graduated from University of Hawaii Manoa with a degree in political science and has worked in city and state government for the past 13 years. Currently a member of the Ala Moana-Kakaako Neighborhood Board, he wrote this in his individual capacity.