Revitalizing the Tourism Economy
We have a long, difficult road ahead of us when it comes to restoring our economy to a place where all local residents can afford to live, play, work, and raise their families.
I personally believe that all crises present us with an opportunity to grow and adapt. COVID-19 and the economic hardships felt because of it are no different, and we must be creative and flexible as we navigate our way to a new normal that is both healthy and prosperous.
In the past, our local tourism economy has always ranked among our strongest economic performers. In 2019, visitors spent $17.75 billion in the islands and generated $2.07 billion in tax revenue for the state. Perhaps most importantly, the industry directly supported more than 200,000 jobs over the past year.
Tourism is our core competence and will play a crucial role in our economic recovery. It would be imprudent to use COVID-19 as a reason to turn away from an industry that has been so reliably prosperous for so long. While efforts should continue on finding that specific industry that can reduce our reliance on tourism, be it in technology, science, health, knowledge, or the like, the industry to put people back to work immediately is tourism.
Diversification Within Tourism
Now, we must also be wise and forward-thinking enough to recognize our current situation as an opportunity to both diversify and curate what we offer as a premier tourist destination. Because we will not see visitor arrival numbers or spending restored to pre-COVID levels overnight, Hawai‘i should use the coming months and years to diversify within the tourism industry. Rather than focus on just the sun, sand, sea, and surf, we should look to develop and market a variety of other activities for our visitors to enjoy, and from which they can draw value.
The benefit of these industries within an industry is that they support our core strength of tourism, showcase the beauty of the islands to a global audience, and help to preserve the unique character of Hawai‘i.
Sports tourism is a prime example of a specific niche within the tourism market that has already proven its viability. During my time at the Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association, we brought in professional sports teams, including the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Clippers, and developed strong relationships with international competitions like the Ironman World Championships and Sony Open, as well as the LPGA’s annual Lotte Championship.
In the months before the pandemic, I was in talks with organizers from World Rugby, which oversees the Rugby World Cup, to explore the possibility of bringing an international rugby event to Aloha Stadium. Each of these entities represents an opportunity to not only expand our repertoire of events to draw visitors to Hawai‘i, but to benefit our local populace through community engagement events that we have required professional sports teams to offer while in the islands. These have included everything from free skills clinics to family events around the state.
Film and Television Production
Hawai‘i has been the setting for scores of film and TV productions over the years, from Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii,” two versions of “Hawaii 5-0” and “Magnum, P.I.,” countless TV commercials broadcast worldwide, amateur and professional sports coverage, and more.
The state government offers financial incentives to film in the islands, while the counties offer direct support through permitting and other resources under county jurisdiction. We can do more to support film and TV production by making it easy and comfortable to work here, to let producers know they are welcome, and that we stand ready to assist them.
Agritourism is another area within our local market that can be further explored and cultivated. In recent years, we have seen local farmers push the boundaries of what was thought possible for small, local farming operations. The Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival, which showcases that diversity and ingenuity of local farms as well as local chefs, is a shining example of how well-marketed and developed ideas can both thrive while benefiting Hawai‘i residents as well as visitors. I support working with the HFWF Foundation in creating a similar festival targeted at the millennial generation and encourage more partnerships with culinary programs at the high school and community college levels to train the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs.
Just as travelers love New Orleans, Tokyo, or Hong Kong for the food, so too has Hawai‘i earned a reputation for the creativity and quality of our cuisine, the variety and freshness of local products, and the many restaurants offering the finest food in the world.
We must continue to develop attractions and events that share the local culture in a sensitive and appropriate manner. For many years, the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival has brought people from around the world to Hilo to see an art form that was almost lost to the history books. Cultural events like Merrie Monarch introduce people to our home’s history, culture, and people in such a way that will encourage people to return to experience rather than exploit the many things that we have to offer. These are the high-quality visitors that the local tourism industry has always sought to attract.
I support existing hula and cultural festivals on O‘ahu like the Prince Lot Hula Festival and believe that cultural events like Prince Lot, Merrie Monarch, and the annual Queen Lili‘uokalani Keiki Hula Competition should be expanded to offer more opportunities for residents and visitors to experience Hawai‘i’s local culture.
In this vein, I will look to create a “culture and arts” corridor in the Kaka‘ako neighborhood to serve as a venue for concerts and performances, water sports, and the Aloha Festival’s Ho‘olaule‘a. This area could feasibly support artist lofts and exhibitions, open markets, and food events. Additionally, these added events and attractions would allow for the expansion of existing attractions like “Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i,” the Ola Ka ‘Ilima Artspace Lofts, and the Hawai‘i Children’s Discovery Center. I intend to pursue funding for this arts corridor through grants such as the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town Program.
These are just a handful of the many ways that we could diversify the local tourism market. National and international meetings and convention, education, eco-activism, technology, fitness and healthcare, and so many of our existing strengths represent particular niches of our local economy that can be developed as we look to rebrand and redevelop our offerings as a top-tier tourism destination targeting quality versus quantity of tourists—a phrase I first put forward ’90s when I was the director of the Hawai‘i Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.
Community input and engagement will be a part of every aspect of tourism and economic recovery initiative that we will pursue in a Hannemann administration as I have done in all my previous endeavors. From communities that will be affected, to our Native Hawaiian populace, we will reach out and engage in an open and transparent manner. I personally believe that impact fees like what I championed as a City Councilmember at Hanauma Bay is a model we should look to expand upon for other City attractions for travelers who come here. I want the rebranding of tourism on O‘ahu to be sustainable and resilient.
For these types of decisions to be made, it becomes clear that local leaders must be tested, versatile individuals with the executive experience, relationships, and organizational knowledge to see these opportunities through from idea to execution.
We can do this, together.