Mass tourism is the 1,200 pound gorilla in the room


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I would dare say that all my adult life I have heard elected officials and election candidates talk about the need to diversify Hawaii’s economy. This statement can be found in almost every candidate’s election platform, regardless of their party affiliation.

Yet our economy did not diversify after WWII – in fact, we went the other way with the demise of agriculture. Why is it?

The late UH Professor Ira Rohter taught his students to think about the history of Hawaii not in terms of systems of governance, but rather in terms of economic systems. It turns out that these two elements are linked, but in reality it is the economic system that determines the system of governance, and not the other way around.

A “functioning” economic system will find ways to influence, if not outright infiltrate, government to ensure its perpetuation. This is what we colloquially call the rich who get richer.

When one economic system begins to falter and another wishes to displace it, it will exert itself in the same way on and in the political system (see the overthrow of 1893). This is why diversification has not taken place. Despite the rhetoric of the election year, the current winners in our economic system risk becoming losers if we diversify, so they find quiet ways to prevent it.

But maybe, just maybe, Covid-19 suddenly blew up this ‘kayfabe’, laying bare the vulnerabilities in society so we could all see them. It may also have given us a unique chance to build a better, fair, equitable and more responsible economic system. I’m not the first person to suggest this, but I wanted to offer concrete suggestions.

Visitors frolic on Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head as a backdrop.
Visitors frolic in Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head as a backdrop in December 2018. Hawaii no longer has to rely on large-scale tourism. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

First of all, we have to talk about the 1,200 pound gorilla in the room: mass tourism.

Mass tourism fails most cost-benefit analyzes, but few government officials will readily admit it. The reason is that the resources it consumes versus the jobs and benefits it provides to most of us are not erased. This increases crime, environmental degradation, demand for illegal TV units, and cultural suppression / appropriation.

It is time for us to abandon this mode of tourism. In its place, we can develop niche tourism. It can be sport, health or cultural tourism.

The key is fewer visitors spending a similar total amount of money. It would always mean future calamities, such as pandemics, wars and terrorist attacks, and economic downturns could severely depress our economy with very little warning. We therefore need to develop other sectors of our economy that are more resilient to sudden downturns in leisure travel. I suggest three.

Asia-Pacific link

First, we must be a world leader in education and research. Our geographic location as the link between the United States and the Asia-Pacific makes us a natural fit for this, and our attractive quality of life should attract world-class academics and researchers to our shores. Distance education will be in great demand in the future; we’re also uniquely positioned for this because of our location and our time zone, especially relative to someone on the east coast.

We must be a world leader in education and research.

Second, this also applies to health and medicine. With our fantastic weather all year round, we should be a leader in this area. Would you rather spend a few winter months in rehab in Honolulu or Chicago? Telehealth is going to be in great demand and Hawaii can take advantage of our location. One of my best friends is from the East Coast and has been a tele-radiologist in Honolulu for years, servicing hospital emergency rooms around the world on any shift.

And finally, I believe we need to grow agricultural hemp on a large scale. This would help protect our remaining farmland and we could develop a local manufacturing industry around it.

We may even be able to export hemp or its products for profit – remember these freighters leave all of our ports mostly empty. Of course, if we ever legalize marijuana, the agricultural potential will go to another level than hemp.

I have presented these ideas in the hope that they will spark a public debate about what we want our economy to look like two years from now and beyond. Hopefully, once the public reaches consensus, it will put pressure on the candidates and, more importantly, on government officials to make this happen.

Hawaii has survived economic system transitions before, and this time it should be driven from the bottom up. Together, let’s embrace a better future for all of us!

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