The talk of the town these days seems to be: how do we tamp down the don’t-tread-on-me tourism business that feeds so many mouths but overruns our roads and beaches and hiking trails such as Diamond Head?
We never developed anything to economically replace it. It’s that and all the military construction and ship repairs. No more sugar or pineapple. No high technology industry. We feed off those 10-million-plus visitors who came here last year before the virus hit.
We could easily shut down the promotion efforts of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, but we’d put about 230,000 tourism-oriented workers out of jobs permanently because there’s no where else for them to work with their limited skills.
If you put your eggs in a basket and the basket bottom falls out …
Funny. When I go to other sunny island places such as Fiji or Borneo and tell them about our 10 million visitors they are envious and wish they could get some of that. All they can see is the money. Us, too, until lately. Now you see things like a Facebook site called Redesign Hawaii Tourism. But (and it’s a big one) while Kailua residents may resent all the tourist and their cars jammed beachside, they also depend on those busloads of Japanese visitors to nourish their A&B high-lease-rent shops downtown.
I got a Facebook posting by a thoughtful kamaaina friend: “How we wish that the monopoly of tourism could make room for other ways to live in this state. Too bad their success and ability to control the narrative has over shadowed the quality of life in the Hawaiian Islands. The absence of tourists and the events that disturb certain neighborhoods on a weekly basis is such a treat.”
This discussion leads me to a paper issued a month ago by scholars Paul Brewbaker, Frank Haas and James Mak for the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii.
Here’s a key sentence from that paper: “The first rule in tourism development is that the well-being of destination residents must come first.”
Then: “Unfortunately, the majority of Hawaii residents now think that tourism in Hawaii is being run for tourists at the expense of local residents.”
The research paper reports that “in 2019, only 41 percent of the respondents agreed that ‘tourism has been mostly positive for you and your family,’ down from 60 percent in 1988. These negative resident perceptions should be of great concern to the Hawaii Tourism Authority and policymakers.”
But there’s a bug in HTA’s soup. It’s a government agency with out a single government person on its board. So the researchers concluded that “From early on there was concern that with majority membership comprising of people from tourism, when push comes to shove the broader interests of the community will be sacrificed to the narrower interests of the various factions in the visitor industry.”
There is a theory in government studies called “regulatory capture.” It basically says that regulatory agencies may come to be dominated by the industry they are charged with regulating and do not necessarily serve the public interest.
That appears to many of us to be exactly what happened with HTA. Its members with their business orientation wanted more and more tourism and ignored the damage that was being done and the ill-will that was being bred.
The UH research group writes that “Hawaii received nearly 4 million more tourists in 2019 than in 1989, but with less total (real) visitor spending. In sum, tourism’s benefits to Hawaii were falling while the costs/ problems imposed by tourism on the local community were rising.”
And it’s not just the UH group’s assessment. HTA’s own Resident Sentiment Survey found that most Hawaii residents are aware of HTA’s role in marketing and promoting Hawaii tourism but believe that HTA is less effective in “communicating with and listening to Hawaii residents concerning tourism-related issues and concerns.”
Two years ago, Chris Tatum became HTA’s new president and announced his intention to chart a new course that aims to achieve greater balance between tourism marketing and an emphasis on higher spending but lower impact visitors, and to focus more on community enrichment and preservation of Hawaiian culture and natural resources.
We’re not there yet and we’re in a total vacuum right now with COVID-19.
When we restart, will the tourists that HTA plans to encourage nourish us, or continue to devour our resources?