Editor’s note: Hawaii is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, with unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression. Civil Beat’s new series, “Making It. Or Not,” tells the stories of people in Hawaii who are struggling — and those who are finding creative ways to make ends meet — in the pandemic economy. Email makingit@civilbeat.org to share your story.

Maria “Coco Maria” Camero, 43, started a guided tour company in 2013 with a 15-passenger van, a strong work ethic and an encyclopedic understanding of Hawaii history.

She grew Kauai Soul Travel into a profitable company, landing hotel contracts and earning popularity with cruise ship passengers. 

The first two months of 2020 were her busiest, most lucrative ever, opening the door for Camero to hire her first employee.

When the coronavirus pandemic derailed her profitable guided tour business, Maria “Maria Coco” Camero pivoted to a personal shopping and grocery delivery service. Courtesy: Maria "Maria Coco" Camero

But in March, as she was on the verge of buying another tour van and hiring another tour guide, the coronavirus arrived in Hawaii, instantly sinking Camero’s average monthly income from about $8,000 to zero.

“I would lay in my bed and look at my ceiling and think, ‘Is this really happening? The world is falling apart. What am I going to do?’” Camero said. 

Camero knew the best way to boost her spirits was to keep moving. So in April she launched a personal shopping and grocery delivery service for kupuna and other people at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, as well as quarantined travelers who can’t go to the store.

“I’ve always been kind of a hustler,” Camero said. “When COVID happened, I got depressed but then a survivalist instinct kicked off in me.”

As a personal shopper, Camero said she’s earning in a week what she used to make in a day.

She said she thinks she could grow the business by investing in marketing and throwing all of her energy into it. But she hasn’t done that yet. She’s holding out hope that she’ll be able to return to tour guiding before the end of the year. This prospect is starting to feel more possible now that Hawaii will allow incoming travelers to avoid the 14-day quarantine if they can show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result.  

“People tell me I should be switching careers because tourism is so uncertain.” — Maria “Coco Maria” Camero

But even as plans are in place for tourism’s return, Camero said she won’t be able to pick up where she left off. 

She plans to decrease her tour group capacity from 14 to seven, institute a mask mandate, encourage frequent hand sanitizer use and clean her van more thoroughly between tours. 

This new business model, retooled to limit the threat of the virus, will cost her more money to operate. And it will generate less income. But, Camero reasons, at least she’ll be doing the work she loves again.

“I really feel like it’s my calling in life,” Camero said. “People tell me I should be switching careers because tourism is so uncertain. Although I am pivoting to do something else in the meantime, I can’t wait to get back to doing the work that I feel like I was meant to do.”

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