Catherine Toth Fox: Have We Made Waikiki 'Safe And Sound' Yet? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

It was just after 8 a.m., and a family of three had just arrived at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. The smiling dad snapped photos of his wife and child, as they haphazardly crossed the sand toward the ocean holding hands.

Someone wrapped in a tattered sleeping bag lay next to a nearby coconut tree. A disheveled man spewed swear words to no one in particular outside a public restroom. And the sand was littered with trash.

The woman grabbed her child’s hand and pulled her away from the water. She turned to her husband and said, “This beach is so dirty.”

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Sadly, this is how Waikiki has looked for years. Nothing’s really changed much. Ever since I started surfing here in the morning more than 20 years ago, there have always been people sleeping on the sidewalks, workers cleaning up trash and feces from business doorways, people arguing or passed out on the beach. I have been physically assaulted by a homeless woman while crossing Kalakaua Avenue to the beach one morning, and I never go barefoot anymore for fear of stepping in poop, urine or vomit that’s often on the sidewalks.

I never understood how we could let the state’s tourism hub fall into such disarray.

If I were a visitor to Oahu — and if this was my first time in Hawaii — I would be shocked and disturbed by the scene. And I likely wouldn’t come back, despite Hawaii historically tracking lower for violent crime compared to the rest of the U.S., according to FBI data.

In 2022, rates of certain violent crimes trended back up to pre-pandemic levels on Oahu, including in Waikiki, even while property crimes went in the other direction. In September, the city launched “Safe and Sound Waikiki” with the goal of creating a safer environment by finding and prosecuting repeat offenders.

This initiative came after a 23-year-old man was sentenced to life in prison for killing a tourist from California in 2021 and a 46-year-old man was charged with attempted murder after chopping off another man’s hand with a sword at a 7-Eleven in Waikiki.

“This is a show of force and a show of unity,” Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said at a press conference announcing the program. “If you talk to residents or the hotels, the top two issues they see are crime and homelessness and we plan on tackling both. This is the beginning of a new era of taking back Waikiki.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks during the Safe and Sound Waikiki press conference.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks during the Safe and Sound Waikiki press conference saying “This is a show of force and a show of unity.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But has the program really worked?

Since its launch, there have been several high-profile incidents, including one in December involving an armed man who barricaded himself in a Kuhio Avenue hotel room, forcing guests to evacuate. The man was later shot and killed by Honolulu police. That same month a 21-year-old man waiting at a bus stop on Kuhio Avenue was beaten to death by five others.

“Violent crime is increasing, absolutely,” Bobby Cavaco, president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, told Civil Beat. He pointed at fewer police officers on the streets and an increase in drug use and mental illness as causes.

I think back to the early days of the pandemic, when the streets and beaches in Waikiki were empty and nearly pristine and how locals reveled in the unhurried and uncrowded beauty of the area.

Back then we talked about reinventing tourism in Hawaii, focusing more on managing the impact of millions of visitors on our local resources and educating them on Hawaiian culture and sustaining the environment. Regenerative tourism was the buzzword then — still is — and hotels, tour companies, community organizations and government agencies were on board with the initiative.

Each island, in partnership with the Hawaii Tourism Authority, put together a destination management action plan that focused on creating a balance between the needs of both the tourism industry and impacted communities.

One of the best things to come out of this is the implementation of reservation systems at a handful of popular visitor attractions — Hanauma Bay on Oahu, Haena State Park on Kauai, Wainapanapa State Park on Maui — which limit the number of people accessing the area.

The statewide effort also included the promotion of volunteer experiences for visitors, from beach cleanups at Lydgate Beach Park on Kauai to building trails and collecting native seeds in the dryland forest of Waikoloa on Hawaii island.

All good, much needed, long overdue. I completely support the concept of regenerative tourism, of educating visitors and emphasizing low-impact travel to the island state, which is often referred to as the “Endangered Species Capital of the World.”

Area to receive intense city focus
The “Safe And Sound Waikiki” initiative was launched in September to address an uptick in violent crime in the tourist areas of Oahu. Honolulu Prosecutor's Office

But what about neighborhoods like Waikiki, Chinatown and Kailua and towns that attract visitors but don’t have the infrastructure for the growing influx that the state will likely get in the coming years? What about crime in these areas? What about the locals who want to live, work and play in these areas, too?

I love Waikiki, but I realize it may be an acquired taste. I grew up in town, I walk the streets there nearly every day, I’m used to the noise, the crowds, the chaos. But even I won’t venture there late at night or walk in certain sketchy areas.

Safety, to me, should be one of our state’s top priorities when it comes to tourism. You can have the most beautiful beaches, the most perfect weather, but if the place doesn’t feel safe, no one will want to come.

We need to malama our home before we expect others to.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

"This is a show of force and a show of unity," Sorry mayor, not much a show of force based on all the violet crime what continue its nasty trend in Waikiki. I got to know Waikiki in high school in the days when things where simpler and you never heard of things like stabbings, much less shootings and deaths. Back then normal rowdy, was a bar fight, but no one came close to dying or having a limb removed. When enforcement was needed police dispatched the "Metro Squad," a division of cops that kept things in order not with a citation, but with an iron fist. Bad fractions and individuals where targeted and told never to come back to Waikiki and that kept the peace.Today, in our woke culture of body cams and ACL lawsuits, this needed service would never get the green light, but something to think about privatizing like the Guardian Angels did in NYC. We don't need more cops to hand out citations, we need the rule of good by force to ensure crime is extinguished.

wailani1961 · 4 months ago

As with many neighborhoods, Waikiki has always faced issues with crime, vagrancy, drugs and violence. Any effort to reduce the impact of these issues is worth supporting. "Safe" may not ever be achieved but that's not a reason to abandon efforts to make things "Safer."

Xpat · 4 months ago

There are several generally accepted quantitative methods to answer this question. And until we take the much needed first step of accurately counting and reporting crimes, it's not going to be clear if the government is just holding press conferences and burning money or if there is actual change being done.The public and the press should hold the city accountable for reporting on these stats. Otherwise we're just left with random anecdotes of a crime here, a homeless person there, and no real idea of what is actually going on.

FutureNihon · 4 months ago

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