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Hawaii Is Dreaming of a Post-Tourism Paradise

The pandemic has demonstrated — in cruel fashion — how a reliance on tourism can devastate a state economy when disasters strike. But is it also the push the island needs to diversify?

The COVID pandemic hit Hawaii just as swiftly and unpredictably as the rest of the country, rapidly slamming the brakes on tourism and bringing a $16 billion industry to a groaning, anxious halt. But amid the state waffling on lockdowns, mass unemployment and rising political unrest around the November election, a few silver linings came into view for people who have spent their entire lives becoming accustomed to the status quo. 

For Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, born and raised on the island of Oahu, the pandemic meant an unprecedented opportunity to experience what Hawaii could look like without a mass of tourists influencing every aspect of life. “I’ve lived here my entire 40-plus years of life, and I’ve never seen it without planes constantly flying over. I’ve never been able to sit peacefully on Waikiki Beach and watch my kids play without being disgusted by the slick of sunscreen on the water and without being crowded out,” Goodyear-Ka’ōpua tells me. “Actually, last summer, there was even a huge ball of aholehole swimming out there, attracting small reef sharks. So just to see the way that a different kind of life was growing again, just in another way… it makes you think.”  

The last time I spoke with Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, it was for a story on the generational protest movement against a monolithic, state-of-the-art telescope proposed for construction on Hawaii’s tallest and most sacred peak. A Native Hawaiian and a professor of political science, she observed that the fight against the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) wasn’t one of science versus native culture, as often described in media reports. Rather, it was a long-simmering struggle over agency and old contracts left unfulfilled. 

As a battle over land rights and decision making, the TMT protest was forever tied by a thread to other fights over colonialism, Hawaiian rights and the damage taken by the islands’ fragile ecosystems. Native activists used present-day protests to remind people of how Hawaii, once a sovereign nation led by a queen, was violently taken by white business interests backed by the U.S. military. That legacy lingers in the form of Hawaii’s copious military installations and swollen tourism industry, which exploded soon after the U.S. established Hawaii as the 50th state in 1959. 

The pandemic only brought all those historic fights into sharper relief as it demonstrated — in cruel fashion — how a reliance on tourism can devastate a state economy when disasters strike. And while COVID brought a pause to the Thirty-Meter Telescope protest at the base of Mauna Kea, it also provided a moment for people to reconsider an alternate future for this tiny island chain. 

“A lot of folks in the Hawaiian community have called upon us to remember that our people have been traumatized by multiple outbreaks throughout the last couple of hundred years. The trauma, the massive loss of life, the disruption of the fabric of Hawaiian social and economic structures, were all experienced by an earlier generation. But we’ve survived,” Goodyear-Ka’ōpua says. “There is good that will come from it.” 

The damage so far is hard to ignore: Not only are Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders more vulnerable to COVID, they’ve been hit extra hard because so many work in the service and hospitality industries (often juggling multiple jobs). Native Hawaiian communities have lost generational wealth in the past, and now are being hammered with horrific unemployment rates as the state’s bureaucracy flounders. Meanwhile, the cost of living remains the highest in the country, thanks in part to gentrification and the wealth gap fed by the influx of hyper-capitalists like Mark Zuckerberg.

Jon Osorio, the dean of Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at University of Hawaii, sums it up neatly: “We will never end the visitor industry, but it must be curtailed,” he tells me. “Everyone has seen what happens to Hawaii, how we went from the lowest unemployment rates to the highest unemployment rates in the U.S., all because of our reliance on tourism. Will we finally understand that we need to move away from this?” 

People outside of Hawaii, meanwhile, still can’t resist the urge of a trip to paradise for cheap, breaking quarantine rules all along the way. Hotels and resorts, desperate for revenue, are begging for bookings by offering low rates and even free trips back to Hawaii if you don’t love your vacation. Influencers have certainly fallen head over heels with pandemic Hawaii — perhaps a convenient coincidence given that the state of Hawaii itself is courting people to move to the islands and work remotely. 

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The state’s convoluted testing program was supposed to prevent COVID spikes, but it didn’t. Instead, it left residents feeling “like guinea pigs.” And now that a swath of people in Hawaii are broke as hell, the real estate market is under a lot of magnifying glasses as investors look to scoop up homes as assets — a cycle that has led Hawaii to have some of the lowest rates of property ownership in the entire country.

“The folks that I know who work in real estate say it’s become increasingly common during this pandemic to have foreign investors come and offer cash above the asking price for homes in residential areas in Honolulu. That’s obviously going to make it impossible for people who live here to continue living here,” Goodyear-Ka’ōpua tells me. 

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It’s all fine and good for, say, a pair of Princeton bros who want to buy a hotel on the cheap, but for many longtime residents, the pandemic and economic crash has created a fork in the road. Indeed, 2020 surveys of resident attitudes, conducted by the state tourism authority, show a clear takeaway: Nearly two-thirds of Hawaii residents believe tourism should stop during the pandemic, and about the same question whether the government can safely reopen the state. 

What could take the place of tourism in the Hawaiian economy? 

Osorio has been pondering this himself while talking to other activists, thinkers and legislators, and while he doesn’t claim to have a blueprint, one key is to make Hawaii a place for people who care about its history and want to work with the land, whether literally or more metaphorically. It could be agriculture, green tech or Native history and the healing arts. It could still include tourism, but perhaps a strain that treats the land more like a preserve and less like a tropical Disneyland. 

All of these changes address more than a century of colonization and exploitation at the hands of foreign forces. “This whole sense of thinking big — of really making America’s wealth work for more and more of its people — that’s exactly the kind of attitude we need to have here in Hawaii. The kind of political attitude that says, ‘We’re not scared to corral tourism, and we’re going to diversify.’ I want to see it possible for people to consider careers in farming and fishing and food production and healing arts and all kinds of things,” Osorio says. 

It’s the same idea reflected in the opposition to the Thirty-Meter Telescope; a reaction to the stripping of Hawaiian agency from Hawaiian lands under the amorphous guise of growth and progress. Pushing the status quo will surely come with stumbles, but hopefully also wisdom; Goodyear-Ka’ōpua tells me how a multimillion-dollar campaign to develop the agriculture industry in Hawaii went bust, perhaps because they spent the money planning an agribusiness model rather than, say, giving those funds to grassroots farmers and organizations who are already doing the work. 

Hawaii is a place whose oppression was borne of capitalism, and a place that has grown visibly prosperous thanks to those who worked to sell the land and its history to anyone who would buy it. By every measure, the islands were on a careening path toward a disastrous correction. And so, to those who love Hawaii and understand the history of its people, COVID is a necessary encapsulation of many essential lessons.

“It really is about self-determination, and I’m not just talking about Hawaiians here, I’m talking about the people who live here. In the Hawaiian language, huliau is a time of transformation, and it usually comes in crisis. The time is right, and we have the will and the intelligence to make Hawaii into a very different kind of place,” Osorio says. “The status quo was created. It didn’t just emerge naturally. It was given favor of the law. It rewarded specific groups of people. But we can change that.” 

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