About the Author
Noel Kent came to Hawaii in 1965 as an East-West Center grantee. From 1972 until August of this year he was a faculty member of the UH Manoa Ethnic Studies Department. He is the author of the book, Hawaii Islands Under the Influence.
For many years tourism in Hawaii grew relentlessly. Politicians lavished public money on airports, convention centers and the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. Zoning rights were granted for golf courses, hotels and timeshare developments.
The official line was not subtle: We in the islands were oh so lucky to have a wonderful industry benefiting us with lots of money and jobs. We were sharing our paradise with the world! The more tourists who came, the better. And the more overseas corporations that built hotels — well, that just meant even more jobs.
Some among us were, to say the least, skeptical. The skeptics voiced concerns that tourism was providing too few decent jobs and too many low-wage ones. They charged that tourism was sharpening class and ethnic inequalities.
The culture of “the plastic lei,” Native Hawaiian activists protested, was displacing genuine kanaka maoli culture. There was concern and anger, too, about environmental degradation and decisions that favored tourists over the people who actually lived in the islands.
Such talk seemed to have only modest support and no political traction.
But lately the industry’s critics are far more numerous and much bolder. Nowadays, in fact, the tourism industry is widely seen as a force that is both endangering Hawaii’s unique identity and putting our present and our future at risk.
Why the change of mind and heart? The obvious answer is the fallout from the worst pandemic in a century. Even with the visitor industry battered all across the globe, Hawaii’s plummet has been extreme.
Only last year, 10,424,995 tourists came to Hawaii, breaking records for arrivals and spending and industry profits. Since March, of course, Waikiki and other tourist enclaves have been transformed into semi-ghost towns.
In July 2019, 995,210 tourists flew to Hawaii; this July, that number was 22,562 — an astounding drop of 97.7%.
It’s no secret that tourism’s collapse has, in turn, largely wrecked our economy and saddled Hawaii with the highest unemployment rates in the United States and a crisis in public budgets.
Tens of thousands of hospitality workers are now jobless and weighed down by poverty and debt. Many are facing evictions and waiting patiently in food lines. A host of small businesses have closed permanently or are in jeopardy.
In the midst of an economic collapse of this magnitude, statements touting the value of tourism are no longer credible. Instead, what becomes even clearer are the perils of basing an economy on an industry as terribly vulnerable as tourism.
Why, people are asking today, did popular wisdom assume that there wouldn’t be hellish crises in an industry dependent on travelers with lots of disposable income flying to a remote island chain thousands of miles from their homes?
Temporary downturns in the 1990s and in 2001 and 2009 provided warnings. But given the power of illusion and greed for profits, those warnings were ignored.
Today, such willful ignorance is no longer possible.
And here I want to make a key point.
In planning for post-pandemic tourism in Hawaii — and there will, of course, be such a thing — we make a mistake if we think that it was solely tourism’s COVID-19 collapse that has made locals anxious to reduce the industry’s presence in the islands.
Even during tourism’s glory days in the last decade or so, Hawaii residents were increasingly uneasy about the behavior of this behemoth in their midst.
The prime cause: The dramatic changes in how tourism actually functions in Hawaii have made our lives as residents more and more dysfunctional.
A major problem has been the sheer volume of tourists descending on our islands. For most of the last decade, we have seen massive increases with each consecutive year.
From 2017 to 2018, the increase was 6% for a total of almost 10 million tourists in 2018. In 2019, the number grew another 5.4% to the astonishing aforementioned 10.4 million.
Meanwhile, the introduction of Southwest Airlines flights to Hawaii expanded seat availability to 12 million annually.
On any given day in 2019, an average of 249,021 visitors were walking, driving, sleeping, eating, swimming and partying in a smallish state with 1.4 million residents.
Kauai, a modest island of 72,000 residents, hosted over 30,000 tourists on some days. Ever-popular Maui, population 157,000, saw an average of 66,000 visitors daily.
Over-tourism was straining infrastructure and carrying capacity to the limit and beyond. Hawaii had become a byword for what students of tourism call “saturation.”
Then there was the transformed tourism experience itself. Visitors were now using their digital devices to locate accommodations in private rental units, such as Airbnbs and VRBOs. Numbers for 2018 show 23,000 such units in Hawaii — mainly owned by people from overseas, illegal and untaxed and located in the midst of local residential areas. The noise and garbage produced by such hotel-like dwellings became notorious in Hawaii (as it did in other tourist sites around the world).
Timeshares accounted for 12,000 units while access to affordable rental housing was reaching a crisis. No wonder modestly paid teachers and other workers have been fleeing to the continent.
Hawaii’s houses and apartments have increasingly become a commodity for overseas investors — many of whom first arrived as tourists — who view the islands as a tropical, beautiful, utterly safe place to invest. In the last decade, 24% of the housing sold in the islands went to out-of-state buyers.
There’s more. The same digital devices in the palms of tourists’ hands also led them to local preserves once thought too remote from resort areas to draw attention from outsiders.
So, on every major island, tourists were mobbing iconic restaurants, coffee shops, long-treasured places to walk and swim and commune with nature. The influx of tourist-driven vehicles was causing traffic jams in Kailua, West Maui and North Kauai, among other places.
In sum, Hawaii’s transition from a tourism economy to a tourism society has intensified the stresses of our everyday lives.
The growing challenges to our economic survival were illuminated by the grueling 51-day strike of 2,700 Local 5 hotel workers in late 2018 over pay, work and job security issues at five Waikiki hotels owned by Kyo-ya and managed by Marriott.
The strike slogan, “One Job Should Be Enough,” spoke volumes about full-time tourism workers forced into second jobs to survive. The head of the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce commented ruefully that there are “people working multiple jobs, seasonal work. There’s employment, and then there’s quality employment.”
Hence, the steady outmigration of young people.
Little wonder that in 2018, tourism overdevelopment emerged as a red-hot subject of public discussion. The Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan recognized the dangers: “We are at a tipping point and the risk of over-tourism threatens the environment, quality of life and the visitor experience.”
In June 2019 the depth of local frustrations was revealed on Kauai’s north coast, when local residents came out in force to block tourist-driven cars on the highway, engaging drivers face-to-face to discourage them from going further. Protesters demanded strict limits on the number of cars allowed in.
Thus, several years before the pandemic devastated tourism, local people were becoming increasingly resentful of the industry and the tourists themselves. Of course, if such feelings spill into action, as on Kauai, tourism becomes unsustainable.
To be sustainable, tourism in Hawaii will have to be transformed from a private good that exists to support industry executives, managers and corporate shareholders into a public good that exists to support the people of Hawaii.
Thankfully, we have some guidance here in the work of various people like Gregory Richards, Jim MacBeth, Jean Holder and Derek Hall, who have written in journals like “Annals of Tourism Research.” Their work scathingly critiques the old profits-are-everything tourist model while envisioning a more ethical and socially responsible tourism.
Such tourism would be sensitive to the economic and cultural needs of the human communities involved. It would engage locals as equal partners in the tourism process. It would be managed intelligently and humanely.
In short, the demand is that tourism undergo a transformation.
Stakeholder groups would include everyone living in the destination and all would be consulted and empowered in all decisions about tourism.
What kind of industry would it be then and who would it serve?
To help find the answers, these scholars and others raise some essential questions, easily put into Hawaii terms:
— How can tourism improve the quality of life for all people who live in these islands?
— Are all stakeholders genuinely represented in the planning processes?
— Is kanaka maoli culture and knowledge truly honored?
— Who in the community should be the beneficiaries of tourism?
— How should our communities and our history be presented to the tourist?
— How could management systems be created to protect the environment and lessen tourism’s impact?
— How might an ethical-spiritual view of the stewardship of nature be developed?
— How can studies on tourism saturation guide us in protecting the islands?
We must glean ideas for the future not only from scholars of tourism, but also from innovative policies in other places that are grappling with huge numbers of tourists.
We can look to Palau’s focus on preserving marine resources, the eco-tourism experiences offered by Costa Rica, Bhutan’s emphasis on preserving its culture and experiments in Amsterdam and Venice to reduce tourist density by (in Amsterdam) restricting the number of businesses operating in the city center and (in Venice) banning large cruise liners from docking in the middle of the city.
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Given the current focus on rebuilding our economy, there will probably never be a better time to plan and begin implementing this transformation into a more sustainable, humane tourism.
Of course, it will most definitely not be a walk in the park. Power relationships in the islands are very real and the well-financed and politically connected Hawaii tourism lobby is extremely well-organized, extravagantly funded and yearns for a return to “normalcy” — meaning the 10 million plus visitors of 2019?
Implementing policies to make this form of tourism a reality will mean educating and organizing our citizens across all islands at both the grassroots and political levels.
Here’s an opening suggestion: We have a Hawaii Tourism Authority, which in the fiscal year 2020 had a budget of $86.7 million. Over two decades ago, my colleagues from the University of Hawaii, Professors Haunani-Kay Trask and David Stannard, proposed creating a Hawaii Residents Authority to give the people who live in the islands a serious voice in the tourism industry. Maybe we’ve arrived at the time for the Legislature to establish and fund it.
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