Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

The Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) recently put some numbers behind what most in the Aloha State had already, at least internally, accepted -- it will be years, not months, before tourism returns to pre-coronavirus levels.

A report issued May 21 predicts it will take six years for tourism to fully rebound. After receiving 10 million visitors in 2019, the agency predicts a mere 3.4 million will come to the Islands in 2020. The study predicts 6.2 million visitors in 2021 and 8.3 million in 2022. Changes in the course of the global fight against Covid-19, such as release of a vaccine, could have profound impacts on the pace of recovery, and the DBEDT based its recovery models on the aftermath of the Great Recession, a much different event from the pandemic. 

Still, the unprecedented tourism standstill is increasingly being framed as an opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate Hawaii's economy, particularly its core components such as tourism. With hopes of turning tragedy into systemic reform, a new group has coalesced during the pandemic shutdown orders, using videoconferencing to organize an economic reform agenda based on Native Hawaiian values and community consensus.

In a press conference on May 19, organizers announced Aina Aloha Economic Futures, a coalition with the backing of more than 500 groups and individuals who hope to "reboot" the Aloha State's economy. 

"The Covid-19 crisis has made entirely transparent the urgent necessity for us to build a new economic machine with an upgraded operating system. We need an Aina-based circular economy that works for the many, not the few," Kamanamaikalani Beamer, associate professor at the University of Hawaii's Center for Hawaiian Studies and one of the declaration's 14 authors, said during the press conference.

The term "aloha aina" literally means "love of the land" but carries a deeper significance that refers to respect and care for the ancestral homeland and the Native Hawaiian connection to it.

In the press conference, representatives of the new organization unveiled the mission and invited community involvement in the next steps to develop ideas and policy suggestions based on Native Hawaiian cultural values. The group sent their "Aina Aloha Economic Futures Declaration" to Gov. David Ige, the first part of a planned four-phase effort to diversify the archipelago's economy, which is highly dependent on tourism and military and government spending.

According to the most recent data, Hawaii's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate jumped to 22% in April, the third highest rate in the country, up from 2.4% the previous month, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Nationwide, the jobless rate stood at 14.7%.

"The first and foremost principle that we have to remember is we are living here on an island community, and that island community is fragile and distinct," said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit organization Lalakea Foundation. "It's not limitless. Our resources are finite. Every decision we make toward our future and generations that come after us really have to be considerate of that."

Organizers had hoped to have input collected by May 31, to be followed by online video conferences delving into specific issues such as agriculture through July, concluding with a policy plan released in August. While no new specific policy proposals were offered at the press conference, they did outline guiding principles. The first is "aina aloha," which is further defined in this context as "strategies for economic development that place our kuleana (responsibility) to steward precious, limited resources in a manner that ensures our long-term horizon as a viable island people and place." The second principle outlines that leaders must recognize their position comes from the people, and the need to work with everyone for solutions. Third is a commitment to creativity and innovation, seeking forward-looking strategies. And finally, hookipa (hospitality), with an emphasis on embracing the collective and inclusivity.  

"Now this is not just hookipa for visitors who come, and that is an important component of our society and our economic revival, but it's a particular type of hookipa," Wong-Wilson said. "It's first of all hookipa for each other for those of us who live here  Hookipa is really about being that gracious host, but taking care of our land while we do that. So we invite people to come, but we don't degrade our natural resources, we don't look for extractive industries. We want to make sure that what we do in the future is beneficial to all of us and our land for generations."

The Covid-19 pandemic, and resulting closures and economic slowdown, have highlighted Hawaii's perilous position as an isolated archipelago with a limited economy dependent on regular shipments of goods from the U.S. mainland and abroad. The state agricultural industry has diversified in the last two decades as large sugar and pineapple plantations shuttered and other, smaller operations have taken over the land. But total agricultural acreage declined as well, and some 85%-90% of Hawaiian food is imported to the islands. Production in some areas, such as livestock, eggs, and dairy, has declined in the last three decades.

A new island economy needs to be based on values "that have sustained life in these islands for centuries," Beamer said, offering "meaningful work and sustainable wages  that works for the many and not the few."

Specifically addressing tourism, the principles outline a vision for providing "visitors with a genuine and meaningful experience in Hawaii" via a "regenerative visitor industry that respects and gives back to the aina and our host culture" while increasing the benefit to the community and local businesses while minimizing impact on natural resources, cost-of-living, and self-sufficiency of the islands.

"You have to get back to the core of what it is you're really trying to do in this industry. We've let it get away from us," said Joseph Lapilio, president of the Native Hawiian Chamber of Commerce. "There was a time when people could come and visit us. And they came because they wanted to be here, they wanted to meet people and see what this community and culture offered. Now we've gotten to this point of 10 million people marching across our land, and swimming in the ocean, and driving on our streets. There's an opportunity here to be able to enrich that experience, not for the visitor but for us. How do we utilize an industry like that to be able to develop our own internal talents, arts, music, and other things we do? When these things become good for us, then they become good for visitors. We've kind of got it the other way around, where we look at what's good for visitors and then we come in as an afterthought."

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