Lessons Learned: ʻElua


Photo: Brendon Kalei'aina Lee

One year ago, we were in the midst of what would become the first wave of COVID-19 to hit our shores. At the time I questioned why the state government was not doing more to protect the health of its citizens; why the governor was not using his emergency authority to make more aggressive decisions to protect our shores, as Mayor Kawakami was doing for Kauaʻi.

Here we are, vaccine in hand, and our state’s economic engine starting up.

The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism predicts Hawaiʻi will receive roughly five million visitors in 2021. While that is half of the record high of over ten million visitors in 2019, it is still a large number – and they are coming in large numbers already.

Those numbers seem even larger since nearly everything in the visitor industry has been shut down for an entire year and seemingly overnight our beaches went from being empty and once again filled with wildlife, to being full of visitors.

When the state’s economic engine shut down in 2020 there was a lot of talk by state and community leaders that this proves Hawaiʻi is too reliant on tourism and that the state needed to diversify its economy.

Then nothing happened, and now that visitors are returning to our shores and the tourism-based economy is returning, so are the things we kamaʻaina were happy to see go away – traffic, crowded beaches, and our local neighborhoods being inundated with visitors taking up our parking.

As visitors are taking advantage of discounted airline and hotel rates, state and community leaders are once again talking about how Hawaiʻi needs to diversify its economy and not be so reliant on tourism.

They had an entire year of tourism being virtually shut down – what were they waiting for?

After the initial shock of the visitor industry shutting down, no working groups were formed out of the legislature, no emergency orders came from the Governor’s office to form a working group – nothing from any of our state leaders.

It is not realistic to think that we can replace the visitor industry in a year, or that we could have another economic engine ready to fire up once COVID-19 restrictions started to loosen.

However, without any action, not only does the state not have another engine, we do not have a plan, ideas, or even a wishful hint of what or how Hawaiʻi can diversify. While some have been talking about an agriculture industry, it has been shown that the largest consumer of our Hawaiʻi based agriculture is the visitor industry.

Looking to the future, our state leaders should be looking to the tech industry as one way to begin diversifying the state’s economy: easing regulations on crypto currencies, updating and expanding the state’s highspeed internet infrastructure, and providing incentives for both corporations and work force to migrate to our shores. Hawaiʻi is uniquely situated to be in a favorable time zone for the Asia markets. Not only is this good for tech companies, but the legislature should explore ways to ease regulations on the currency markets as well. Hawaiʻi’s time zone takes advantage of the closing of the U.S. financial markets and the opening of the New Zealand, Australian, and Asian markets.

These are just a few things that our state leaders could be looking at to diversify our economy. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was squandered with inaction during the first-ever shut down of the visitor industry. One thing is for sure, we can no longer afford for them to just say we need to diversify, we need action.