“E hele me ka pūʻolo; Make every person, place or condition better than you left it always.” – ʻŌlelo Noʻeau
They say that there’s opportunity in every crisis, and the deeper the crisis, the better the opportunity. Opportunity is knocking.
By far Hawaiʻi’s largest industry, tourism is the engine that drives Hawaiʻi’s economy. When that engine breaks down, that’s a pretty major crisis.
With tourism suddenly halted because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the empty airplanes, vacant hotel rooms, closed restaurants, deserted beaches and uncertain future left everyone asking the same question: where do we go from here?
The word crisis come from the Greek, meaning “to sift, or to separate.” It means to pass judgment and keep only what is worthwhile. In Hawaiʻi, those discussions have begun.
“This global pandemic is an extreme event that has forced everyone to take a hard look at tourism and its role here,” said Manu Kaʻiama, an instructor at both the Shidler College of Business and the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi.
“Most people in Hawaiʻi, especially kānaka, already know that tourism has been complicit in helping to destroy beautiful and unique aspects of this special place for decades now. The pandemic has forced everyone else to admit that Hawaiʻi’s dependence upon tourism is not sustainable and not pono.”
Kaʻiama, who has studied island sustainability and successful economic models for independent island nations, said that if it were up to her, she would phase out tourism over a long period of time, noting that some population estimates say up to one million Hawaiians sustained themselves, without tourism, prior to contact.
But at a minimum, she wants Hawaiians to have a seat at the table with politicians, developers, government, business and tourism officials in deciding how Hawaiʻi best moves forward in the wake of the pandemic.
“Actually, they need a seat at our table,” Kaʻiama said. “That’s the problem, it’s backwards and that paradigm needs to change. We don’t have the influence that they have through money, but this is our home and we need to be insistent that we be heard. I would like the community to be very makaʻala.
“It’s sad because this is our home, and most people who call Hawaiʻi home have absolutely no say in how Hawaiʻi should be. Especially the kānaka who have had our culture exploited, our lands destroyed, our oceans polluted, and our fresh water sources depleted and diverted for big business rather than for use by sustainable farmers and communities.”
Tourism in Hawaiʻi was humming at record numbers before the pandemic. More than 10 million people visited Hawaiʻi in 2019, and on average a quarter million visitors were in Hawaiʻi on any given day.
In 2018, tourism provided 217,000 jobs, or more than one in six in Hawaiʻi. Tourism-related tax payments to state and county governments amounted to more than $2 billion of total revenues; and direct spending by visitors totaled more than $17 billion.
Tourism is so big it’s considered the base on which all other industry in Hawaiʻi is predicated. But how big is too big? And at what cost to kamaʻāina?
“Too many of us slipped into a default mode. We came to accept the economic changes and the continuous drumbeat of economic growth,” said Joe Lapilio, the president of the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce who has run his own consulting firm for 20 years specializing in organizational and community development.
“When it all shut down, we saw what we gave up to pursue the dreams and aspirations of others, many of them not even here in Hawaiʻi,” he said.
“We see now that where we were prior to COVID-19 was actually a choice. We are the drivers of the business and economic perspective. We cannot leave it in the hands of others when it is us who pay the price.”
Lapilio said Hawaiʻi is not Disneyland and it’s not Las Vegas. Nor should it be.
“The hordes of people pouring in and out are just numbers,” he said. “What are the outcomes we want for our residents and for our visitors? The measure we should aim at is the quality of the experience for all parties.
“Tourism should serve us, not the other way around. We need to better manage this. Who are we? What are we willing to share? What is that worth? And at what price?”
Lapilio said there are actions Hawaiʻi can take to help limit its dependence on tourism.
“Hawaiʻi has a role in the 21st century and much of what we can offer is connected to our history and culture. Our approaches to land use, agriculture, science and technology are just a few of the possibilities of what we can do. The world needs an island perspective,” he said.
Kaimana Barcarse is the West Hawaiʻi Regional Director of Community Engagement & Resources at Kamehameha Schools and a member of the state Board of Education. He is a deep-sea voyager and captain, carries a master’s degree in Hawaiian language and literature from UH Hilo, and is heavily involved with Hawaiian-focused community organizations, boards and councils.
Barcarse advocates for the use of “Kanakanomics,” a term that has seen multiple definitions by various groups, in rethinking Hawaiʻi’s approach to tourism.
“For me, Kanakanomics is a mindset that results in intentional and well thought out actions that are made for the benefit of our lāhui in present day, and for generations to come,” he said.
“It’s a common understanding that the Hawaiʻi of today is not beneficial for most kānaka, and we need to do something about it. It is seizing the moment and creating a new normal that will empower and allow kānaka to thrive in their own communities and homelands.”
When it comes to right-sizing tourism, Barcarse said he has some some ideas.
“We need to redefine and refine our values, then build up accordingly. We need to recognize and admit that the old norm had many flaws, including an over reliance on the industry ideas of tourism and what it should be, and work together to create a new norm, one where we heavily influence the narrative and one that benefits the many rather than the few,” he said.
“We need to create opportunities and industries that our ʻāina will bear, ones that are regenerative and not extractive. We have ʻike and culture that have been appropriated and exploited. It’s time to take it back and move it forward in a pono way.”
Barcarse said that even though we may find ourselves in trying times, there are examples of innovation, resilience, excellence, ʻike and aloha to follow.
“This maʻi ahulau has disrupted many of the systems and constructs that have disadvantaged kānaka for decades,” he said. “This is our chance to be the change. While many will look for government and big business to get us back to normal, we have the opportunity, more so – the kuleana – to influence and create a new normal that benefits kānaka.”
“We didn’t need a pandemic to know that we were overly dependent on one industry and that tourism has dominated for a long time,” said Kalani Kaʻanāʻanā, the Director of Hawaiian Cultural Affairs & Natural Resources for the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority.
“If anything, it’s given us the pause to sort of rethink it and imagine what’s next. It’s given us time to dream again.”
Kaʻanāʻanā said in January of this year the HTA board of directors created a new five-year strategic plan that basically reorganizes the way they think about what they do – shifting from tourism marketing to tourism management.
“That plan was in response to what we were already feeling from the community. There was this sense that we weren’t managing this well. We need to engage tourism because if we’re not leading it, we’re not a part of it and we’re not shaping it,” he said.
“We understand that our communities have to help us define what that rate of tourism should be, and what is appropriate for their particular place. It’s on us to connect with them, and we get that everything is contextual, everything is place based and every community is different across the islands.”
Kaʻanāʻanā said tourism provides jobs, tax revenue and billions in visitor spending – and that is important and keeps businesses alive – but at what price?
“It’s our largest economic driver and it does all these wonderful things, and so for us we just got really good at it and we got into this mass industrial type of tourism, but the days of that have to be over,” he said.
“I think there’s actually a lot of room for us to agree and say that tourism hasn’t benefited all of the people of Hawaiʻi, and it hasn’t done a good enough job of improving the quality of life for all of us.
“The companies and corporations will develop businesses that they want to see because they’re the leaders – they’re the ones thinking it. But we as Hawaiians, as all the residents of this state, I would invite all of us to engage the industry in meaningful dialogue as we move forward.”
NHCC president Lapilio said he is looking forward to that dialogue.
“We owe it to our ancestors to continue to be strong and to persevere,” he said. “We owe it to our descendants to be smart and to make this work. This is our time.”