Hawaii’s Unhealthy Relationship With Tourism - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Kayte Jones

Kayte Jones, originally from Oahu, is a resident of the Big Island where she works in the mental health field.


Growing up on the windward side of Oahu, I was used to crowds of tourists. I saw a few tourists increase to busloads of tourists over the years.

Despite the issues that mass amounts of tourism presents to our smaller, local communities, I found that I had to accept it and be grateful, because tourists equal money, right?

In the last few years, my family made the decision to move to Big Island, for many reasons. Although it is not the primary reason, I can’t deny that being “priced out” of Oahu was a contributing factor. We moved to the windward side of the island, since that is my comfort zone, where we have found a new home and community that we love.

I couldn’t help but notice the difference in services and infrastructure. I saw the lack of public transportation. There’s a bus system here on Big Island, made up of retired tour buses and City and County of Honolulu buses, that doesn’t run that often or go to most residential areas.

Manini Beach KealaKekua Bay Kona Hawaii island1

Manini Beach Park at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona side of Hawaii island. The Big Island lacks the infrastructure of Oahu, even though it needs help.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Well, that’s funny. This island is huge. Public transportation would be so beneficial to the residents. Not only would a better bus system create more jobs, it would connect people with more job opportunities in different areas.

I shared my thoughts with a friend who told me, “Well, the county of Hawaii has less tourism, so therefore has less money. What did you expect?”

Abundance Of Opportunity

Recently, I took a trip to the Kona side, which is filled with hotels, strip malls, golf courses, just like Oahu. As I walked through a perfectly manicured strip mall, I felt myself becoming angry and resentful. All of a sudden I felt this boiling resentment. No one invests in locals, the people that actually live here. We only build nice things for tourists.

My “bold and creative” solution for the future of Hawaii is to shift our focus from tourism and invest in our own communities, our own residents and our own industries. Tourism has been profitable for our state. However, the impacts of COVID-19 on tourism highlighted just how completely dependent our state is on tourism — and it’s an unhealthy relationship.

We should continue to attract tourists and profit from it, but we should not be completely dependent on it. It’s time to shift our focus.

Don’t we have more to offer than the exploitation of our land, people and culture? Couldn’t we be a model of sustainability for the future through research of our unique ecosystem and climate? Through developments in agriculture and green energy like solar power, wind power, algae farms and geothermal energy? Couldn’t we be an educational destination through investment and development into our university system?

I recently read an article about opportunity zones in Civil Beat, which stated, “More than two years after Congress created opportunity zones as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, business advocates on Hawaii island say there’s frustration among local entrepreneurs about a perceived lack of movement from the state to bring new investment into the island’s economically disadvantaged communities.”

I followed the link and clicked my way to the Factsheets section where there was a handy-dandy break down of “Investment Drivers” for each area there are Opportunity Zones, including Hilo, Kona, Honolulu, Kahului and Molokai. On the factsheet for Hilo, I found multiple “investment drivers” listed: economic, health care, government, education and research, ports and cultural, along with areas, institutions and businesses ripe for investment in each category.

Apparently, there is an abundance of opportunity out there. Imagine my surprise to see all of this opportunity in my own community, listed so neatly on this factsheet.

Hawaii has more to offer than hotels, luaus and Instagram-worthy photos. Our tropical climate and fertile land are ideal for agricultural development, yet we import most of our food. Investing in our agricultural industry would not only shift our focus from tourism and support local farms, but would also help Hawaii to be less dependent on exports for food.

Hawaii’s climate also creates a unique opportunity for our state to be a model of sustainability via research and development into sustainable sources of energy, such as solar power, wind farms, geothermal and algae farms. The University of Hawaii is a land-, sea- and space- grant institution recognized as a research university. Investing in research and education can make Hawaii an educational destination.

Lastly, and most importantly, we can shift our focus from tourism to our people here at home through infrastructure investments. That means that even areas with low tourism rates get nice things too. Why should we expect outside investors to come in and invest in areas of our state that we don’t invest in ourselves?

Not only would strengthening agricultural infrastructure help Hawaii become less dependent on exports, it will keep our money in the state. Every time there is a crisis, or a natural disaster, residents of Hawaii worry about whether or not cargo ships will make it into our harbors. We worry because most of us are accurately aware of our state’s dependence on exports.

I’m not OK with accepting that my new home has less infrastructure because we have less tourists.

While I loved living on Oahu, I love living on Big Island for different reasons. But this move has shown me the differences between an island catered to and funded by tourism and an island sustained by residents. I have no problem going to the post office to get my mail because we don’t have mail service.

I don’t mind that county water isn’t available in many areas. I enjoy living off the water grid and utilizing a catchment system because I want to live sustainably. I don’t mind some unpaved roads. A poor bus system doesn’t bother me, because I have a car.

What I’m not OK with is accepting that my new home has less infrastructure because we have less tourists.

A community’s value is not determined by its average number of tourists. Our state is more than a tourist destination. Our culture is not meant to be marketed and sold. The people of Hawaii are worthy of investments that improve residents’ standard of living, and not just projects that attract more tourists.

We’ve known for decades that we need to diversify our economy to be less reliant on tourism. It’s time to shift our focus to a more sustainable future for Hawaii.

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About the Author

Kayte Jones

Kayte Jones, originally from Oahu, is a resident of the Big Island where she works in the mental health field.


Latest Comments (0)

This article makes a great point but the author forgets that many people today are against progress unless it's progress to build new stores. The NIMBYs and CAVE people do their best to stop progress. They are against geothermal energy, carbon neutral energy, space exploration(from telescopes to space ports), and any other form of progress that would give Big Island a step away from relying on tourism. We sit between a rock and a hard place. Whomever figures out this problem and gets everyone on board will be in the running for the Nobel Prize.

hawaiianreyes · 2 months ago

PLEASE send this thoughtful, well written article to Governor Ige, Lt. Governor Green and all county Mayors!

Jimmy · 2 months ago

Mahalo for this piece.I totally agree we need to move towards self-sustainablilty and protecting this beautiful culture, people and land.

Judy · 2 months ago

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