I wish I could be more welcoming of the 10 million visitors to Hawaii we had in non-pandemic 2019, the 938,000 we had last January, the mere 227,000 we had last month, and the 145,000 we’ve had so far this month. And their money.
I know they come to see the islands’ great beauty and clean water; many to escape the cold weather of their resident lands.
But it had been so comfortably quiet in Waikiki and at all the “secret beaches” tourists seek out on the internet and in travel books. After the quiet, it seems like a invasive invasion of pale bodies in cars, on mopeds and bikis.
I know what some of you are going to say: “You don’t have to work in the visitor industry to put food on your table. If you did, you would not be so smug.”
Very true. But then it’s also true that most visitor jobs don’t pay much beyond food on the table. Not when compared to what rent, that food and the taxes (in Hawaii, even on basic food) conscript. Most studies say the cost of living in Honolulu requires residents to have an income of $120,000+ to live comfortably on Oahu. The U.S. Census Bureau shows Honolulu’s median household income at around $80,000 in 2019. It likely went down this year since the pandemic hit. Know any visitor industry workers making $120,000+ even in there good times?
I’d be even more smug and more critical of heavy tourism if I thought that Gov. Ige toss-out last month about a more diversified economy —- digital innovation and remote work —- were more than a pipe dream. Sounds good unless you’ve long lived here and know how slow things move and how little gets done [see Rail, Stadium, Roads, Inter-island Ferry and Kohala Task Force].
A UH news release says “Any meaningful economic recovery for the state will be delayed until the middle of next year , according to the University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization’s latest baseline forecast. After that, UHERO anticipates a weakened recovery period.”
So it’s tourism that will keep our heads just slightly above water.
Among the few better paying jobs outside tourism is construction, and we’re seeing plenty of that. But it could result in a more damaging downside than just too many people on our favorite beaches. There is now pushback from landowners over the state’s move via the Land Use Commission to lock up prime agricultural land to assure our future food supply. Obviously, owners of large tracts of good farming land would rather get straight to the big money of subdivision development rather than the the small money of a tax break.
So yes, we could encourage tourism workers to re-train as construction workers and fill all our open spaces with houses. Who wants to live in a place that looks like Los Angeles?
We should have gone high tech many years ago. We had a shot at a rocket launching facility with a teaching academy at South Point but the citizenry there said no. Gambling or at least a lottery? No. A new, larger. better Merrie Monarch Festival arena for Hilo? No. We have diddled so long over the Thirty Meter Telescope that it and its accompanying teaching facility are likely to move on to a more welcoming South America site. We have a limitless natural energy source right under our feet —geothermal — but only minimally tap it for a small electricity market on Hawaii Island. We could be a leader in oceanographic research and ocean energy experiments. We could have enormous fish farms and investigate undersea living potential for future ocean research. We could be air conditioning all our downtown buildings with a seawater cooling system that was talked up and then went nowhere. We could have the biggest cancer-care hospital between here and Tokyo. We could host winter-time athletic training for the pros and colleges. But all the governor can see is something digital?
We’ve seemingly decided on sticking with being a Service Sector economy forever. Some healthcare jobs but mainly hotel jobs and tourism retail.
A long “train” of those 2-person, moped-mobiles went down my street this week —- a tour group coming to use the small, rapidly eroding (because of seawalls) beach at my road’s end. I didn’t smile and call out “alohaaaa.”
But, hey, they paid good money for those moped-mobiles, probably stay in a hotel or hostel, buy groceries and souvenirs and paid airplane fares.
It’s all we’ve got unless Gov. Ige knows something about his “digital economy” proposal that he hasn’t shared yet with us.