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 [2021], 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.

Yeah, right!


Published by Bob Jones

Journalist since age 19. St. Petersburg Times, Noticias y Viajes in Madrid, Overseas Weekly in Frankfurt and Paris, the Louisville Courier- Journal, the Honolulu Advertiser, KGMB-TV, NBC News foreign correspondent in Africa and Southeast Asia, and MidWeek columnist. LL.B LaSalle University Law. 3 years in the U.S. Air Force. Covered: Biafran War in Nigeria (1968) Vietnam War (1969-73), Iraq in 1991. George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished journalism for reporting in China. 2 Emmys for documentaries. Married to journalist Denby Fawcett; one daughter. Brett Jones, foreign service officer, State Department.

4 replies on “They’re Back! So Why Aren’t I Happy?”

  1. Some good thoughts, Bob, but to say “most visitor jobs don’t pay much beyond food on the table” is a bad distortion. Tourism is our economic reality and without it, we are in very deep trouble. I agree that mass tourism is NOT the future we need or a particularly good thing. Neither is the unending and destructive construction which is turning Honolulu into Chicago. But the fact is those 2 areas have provided positive, as well as negative growth. Tourism dollars helped grow our restaurant and retail and investment businesses. And the restaurants and businesses we gained provided good paying jobs, too. Construction also has fed Hawai’i’s economic engine in a big way. And one side effect has been more and better educational opportunities for our kids.
    That said, (as someone else pointed out a while ago), tourism and construction are Hawai’i’s Opioid epidemic. For decades, we have relished and( government and business) celebrated the ever-growing cash totals from both at the expense of maintaining or developing other future industries because it was easy. Now, if we are to survive and prosper, it’s time to re-evaluate and re-boot. The Governor and Mayor Rick should be putting together study commissions from all walks of life to give us a 5 or 10 year master plan for future economic development.. not only high tech, but ag, and things we could easily do such as ..massive solar manufacturing..not just for electricity but for hot water. There is NO reason why we should be importing solar technology from anywhere. It’s a question of do we all have the will to work on the changes we need ?

  2. Most places with diversified economies and high tech jobs have a research university. The state seems to be doing its best to destroy research at UH, our research university. Regents and Senator Donna Kim want to end job security for faculty. Young faculty don’t make $120,000 a year. Many have huge student loans to repay so coming to Hawai`i is a risk. Now staying here increasingly seems a dead end.

    Kim wants to demand that federal funders pay 1/4 the salaries of researchers. She ignores the fact that funders set the rules: “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. Researchers are entrepreneurs, risk takers, only as good as their next grant or discovery. We need risk takers here but, as in business here, the odds are stacked against them.

  3. Perhaps tourism is our reality, at least for now, but the recent inflection point at which the number of tourists went up while total tourist spending went down tells us we were headed in an unsustainable direction.

    We need to figure out a way to limit the cheap tourists who strain our limited resources without offsetting that with their financial infusions. Look at Lana’i as an one example for bringing in tourist dollars without being overrun by tourists.

    IMO, strict enforcement of existing laws governing short-term rentals would to a long way toward a better balance. Those rentals don’t generate the same number of jobs for locals, while at the same time removing housing from the housing market, pushing the price of housing up for locals.

    Increasing property taxes while increasing the homeowner exemption would similarly help, and would also help address another issue of a lot of housing taken from the housing market, used as vacation homes instead. Our low property taxes, in large part because the DOE budget comes from the state, makes real estate here attractive as a place for wealthy people from out of state to park some of their wealth.

  4. BOAT Best of All Time: Glad you mentioned we have no inter-island ferry system. How weird. I hope you revisit just that thought. Getting to another island ain’t that easy by plane. Get to the airport two hours early for a flight to Kauai when the plane starts flying downward as soon as it has flown up? Get to the airport at 2:00 pm to go to Hilo when it’s a crowded, nerve wracking
    mess because all the other flights leave around 2:00.

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