Hawaii may not see 10 million tourists in a year land on its shores again soon — or ever — but the economy won’t fully recover until at least some tourists return, a panel of tourism and business leaders said Thursday.

How that happens and what those tourists do when they get here was the subject of a 90-minute panel discussion hosted by Civil Beat that included Springboard Hospitality CEO Ben Rafter, ABC stores owner Paul Kosasa and Sherry Menor-McNamara of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. Civil Beat reporter Stewart Yerton moderated the discussion.

“Tourism is what makes Hawaii a healthy economy,” Rafter said. “We don’t survive without it.”

How and if it will change at all is still up for debate.

For decades, policymakers and business executives have talked about diversifying Hawaii’s economy. Instead, the state became increasingly dependent on the industry that is now one of three fundamental foundations of the economy along with construction and the military.

Getting tourism back on track could take years, and weaning the state off of it could take longer still.

The industry is expected to have a soft reopening Oct. 15 with the launch of a pre-travel testing program that has already been pushed back twice. Those delayed starts have cost businesses money, says Kosasa.

He said his stores have had to toss items that went bad. It’s been worse for restaurants that planned to reopen, only to find out they would stay closed, and then throw away supplies they just ordered.

Earlier this year, a Civil Beat and Hawaii News Now poll found that residents were supportive of restrictions, even those that harmed the economy, so long as it protected the public health.

But the state’s failure to implement an aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation plan has led to the economy taking a nosedive and a rise in cases that peaked at more than 300 per day in August.

Menor-McNamara said following through with those plans was one important element to reopen the economy along with following health mandates like wearing masks and governments and businesses forming partnerships to distribute aid.

“The clock is ticking — many of these small local businesses will go away,” she said. “Not temporarily, but permanently.”

Kosasa said businesses should take it upon themselves to enforce rules like mask wearing and social distancing. They may also have to do their own contact tracing on employees suspected of being infected, something he said his company already does.

Once tourists start returning, he hopes they’ll abide by mask mandates, or if they’re resistant, at least cave to social pressure.

“There’s got to be a little faith in humanity that we’ll do the right thing,” Kosasa said.

He and Rafter were split on proposed resort bubbles, like those approved for Kauai.

“In terms of thinking they’re going to move the meter even one millimeter, it’s just sheer lunacy,” Rafter said.

Kosasa said travel bubbles could be a good experiment to bring back more resort workers in a larger resort outside of Waikiki like Ko Olina.

“The clock is ticking — many of these small local businesses will go away. Not temporarily, but permanently.” — Sherry Menor-McNamara, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii

The panelists were supportive of the Oct. 15 soft reopening. Rafter said he doesn’t think it will get pushed back again because of the state of the economy. 

Menor-McNamara agreed.

“We can’t keep moving the goalposts while the ball is in the air,” she said.

Though plummeting tourism has meant rising unemployment, Hawaii residents have enjoyed relatively car-free roads and open beaches where tourists once numbered in the thousands.

Places like Hanauma Bay have also shown signs of recovery in their absence.

Asked about the future of tourism, Kosasa and Rafter spoke mostly about rebranding Hawaii. Rafter threw out the idea of controlling the flow of tourists with things like surge pricing, charging people more to go into Hanauma Bay during busier hours for example.

The panelists hope that the tourists that come to Hawaii from now on have respect for its people, land and culture.

“We need to go back to educating tourists,” Rafter said. “You are not coming here to destroy the environment and abuse what makes Hawaii special.”

Kosasa said Hawaii is looking at 2022 “before we can even taste a recovery.”

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