Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of pieces that will examine the visitor industry and the future of the island’s economy.
As I write this, I’m in Copenhagen, Denmark, checking out preparations for the December world conference on climate change. Houses and apartments are smaller here, cars are fewer, bikes are everywhere and wind power rules (and has since the ’70s when Danes decided to free themselves from reliance on Middle East oil). Corporations are powerful factors in Scandinavia, but they don’t reign supreme.
We are all wondering where to go from here. Will Hawaii and Maui crawl out of this depression and go back to business as usual? Can more of the same save us? We staked everything on tourism (and the military) and where are we now? For the 37 years I’ve been in Hawaii, there has been regular talk about diversifying the economy so that we’re more “sustainable.” But rhetoric aside, we have continued to put our eggs in the tourism basket.
And now, the eggs are cracking.
THE MEGA YEARS
Years ago, our developers and leaders decided that Maui was special and that we would not be like Waikiki, which suffered from market fluctuations. No, we would build for the wealthy, who lived above the world of recessions, and so we would be less prone to economic shocks.
The strategy worked—until it didn’t. Convinced there was no end to growth, we built ever-more extravagant temples to the wealthy, mega-resorts surrounded by mega-mansions for mega-rich visitors. Drunk on the high-octane Kool-Aid, one resort tore down my favorite hotel to build super-luxury condos, which sit, all dressed and ready to party, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Rich to arrive.
Bigger, it turns out, hasn’t been better for Maui’s people. Offshore corporations have different masters to serve.
Like those cargo cults who build runways to attract the planes they think are bringing presents from their ancestors, we are stuck with our mega resorts. Meantime, we have to pray that the visitors keep coming while we expand our range of attractions. Many years ago, Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture, summed up the golf course/hotel model: “You’re a bit insane really,” he said, “to be building golf courses so that people can fly thousands of miles to drive around in white carts, hitting little white balls.”
The latest figures on the decline of our singular industry show significant declines in visitor arrivals. The figures compare arrivals with those of a year ago, when business was already way off. Just as significant is the reduction in average visitor expenditures, down almost 20 percent.
While these numbers are disconcerting, the impacts at street level are alarming—closing stores, empty restaurants, huge rental inventories, more people living with friends or out of their cars and everyone striving for reinvention.
Memes are like genes. They are cultural units of information that replicate from mind to mind, appearing within society as new trends or thoughts. They start with social pioneers and eventually spread to more and more people. The prosperity meme has dominated Western thought for the past century. We believed that we could plunder nature, build what we want, spend whatever it took and prosperity would flourish. Wealth, generated by the wizards of the financial world (who produce nothing) would, in the GOP meme, just “trickle down” to the masses. In Hawaii, we could get by catering to visitors who come to enjoy our beautiful islands.
Paul Valery, the French poet, once said that “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness is beginning to show through.” The achievement meme is wearing thin and the community/caring meme is emerging. This meme is what shows up in the Scandinavian countries, where service to others and advancement of the collective good are held in high esteem. Few people there worry about health insurance, losing their job, going hungry. With that comes a freedom from dogma, greed and contention.
This meme is getting stronger in Hawaii and on Maui as our leaders reflect on the limits of growth, the extreme orientation to luxury development, the lack of basic survival necessities and the need for greater social responsibility for our families, farmers and Native Hawaiians.
Another interesting—and insidious—thought virus was the belief that we could import everything. Even a few oil embargos in the ’70s didn’t shake our faith that we could ship out sugar and pineapples and import everything else. With the last sugar fields in Hawaii still waving in the breeze, HC&S stands as a reminder of that era. Yes, they’re losing millions, but the agricultural property tax base is low and sugar justifies A&B’s control of our water—for now.
Along with the community/caring meme is the idea of sustainability. Not as it has been—a mere slogan to repeat in the dark—but as a necessary strategy for survival. It’s time to explore what this thought wave is bringing to our shores.
FOOD, FUEL, SHELTER
Councilman Sol Kaho‘ohalahala says there is a Hawaiian expression that translates as: “To understand the future, look to the past.” Imagine: the ancestors of our host culture lived here for over 1,000 years with no ships or planes arriving, no Costco or WalMart. They didn’t practice “sustainability,” they lived as part of nature, growing food for today and planting for tomorrow.
The food issue is paramount. Local people who have been living close to the land and fishing for food are fairly secure, while others are planting seeds and cultivating their gardens. We have been told that we could meet all of our food needs for Maui by growing food on a few thousand acres. This is often said with a “why bother?” attitude. Well, if it’s so easy, why not just do it?
Yes, farming is hard work. Land is expensive. But what if there were a way to make it financially feasible? What if the County were to, say, approve a medical marijuana bill that would allow small farmers to grow a limited amount of cannabis, but only if they grew a serious food crop as well? The “small farm” part would keep corporations from taking over and making GMO monster weed. High taxes could raise revenue for the County. Small farms would thrive. Young people could work in an environment where they’d learn life skills while earning a living.
Even if we could reduce our dependence on imported foods by 20 percent, that would go a long way toward replenishing our soil, increasing self-reliance, keeping our dollars at home and providing food for our families.
Unfortunately, the oil meme dies hard. Maui Electric Co. and its owner, HECO, make money-generating power from imported oil. HC&S burns coal. Meanwhile, we have a fabulous wind regime and near year-round sun.
Chris Mentzel of South Maui has been studying Hawaii’s power situation for years. The state spends more than $6 billion importing energy; Maui’s share is about $700 million. As long as the utilities control the Public Utilities Commission and the legislature, we will only inch into the future.
Working with forward-thinking allies, Menzel is involved in presenting a plan to the PUC that would require utilities to buy alternative power. Introduced in Germany about eight years ago, the Feed-In Tariff assures the utility a fixed rate of profit, reduces barriers to entry for private power entrepreneurs (who are eager to come to Hawaii) and guarantees consumers low, fixed rates for decades. This plan has allowed Germany to create almost 300,000 new green jobs in less than a decade. But where does the investment capital come from to build the wind, solar and biomass generating capacity?
Mentzel believes that locally investing state of Hawaii employee pension funds (which have lost billions to the Wall Street scammers and gamblers) would provide high-yield, safe investments for our retired workers. He not only believes it; he’s done the math to show that it is a far better investment than the questionable markets those funds are now in.
As for shelter: About seven years ago I built three guesthouses out of bamboo. It seemed like the right thing to do; bamboo is one of the most utilized building materials of all time. A local company, Bamboo Technologies, imported the manufactured homes from their factory in Vietnam. They went up in days.
Now the company has built 150 such homes, more than 40 on Maui. They’re poised for growth, as their message has reached builders from around the world.
They hope to work with local bamboo growers and developers to create home-grown housing projects, envisioning a green Habitat for Humanity where people get more of their building materials on-island and learn to build with this fast-growing, inexpensive-but-strong material that (like hemp) is an excellent “carbon sink,” which could attract dollars from offset-seeking polluters.
The Tavares Administration put an end to visitors staying in our homes, and sent a clear message: “You want to come to Maui, go to a hotel or a condo.” Almost every other destination in the world welcomes B&Bs as a part of the visitor mix, and many locals like the contact. Best of all, the money spent at the local level stays in the community.
Forty years ago, New Zealand studied tourist values. Sixty percent of their visitors were content to stay at the hotels, take the regular tours. Forty percent, however, wanted to see what was off the beaten path, meet local people, tour on their own, visit farms, stay with local families. The study labeled these the “inner-directed tourists.”
We have lots of such niche visitors: the sports folks who want to be close to the water; the health visitors who come for yoga, dance and exercise and want to be near the studios; the health-challenged who want fresh air, country walks, special care; the students of Huna and Hawaiian arts who want to study hula, Hawaiian music, who want to be close to the kumus. Foodies want to be near good restaurants, hikers near the woods and trails, bikers by the highways.
One size does not fit all.
Peahi Farms, an oceanfront project on the North Shore, took a different approach. Limited to 16 lots for their 240 acres, they made lot 16 have 160 acres of farmland so the project could generate its own power, grow its own food, even some building materials. Because of permitting delays, this project missed the market, but it did set a standard for thinking sustainably. It is a model worth duplicating.
Another developer with an Oregon track record, Zack Franks, proposes a health/retirement community outside of Makawao. Recognizing that as people age they need less space and more care, his project would accommodate seniors who want to stay fit, those who need some home care and, finally, those needing intensive care. This model has succeeded throughout the South and Southwest. Maui would be an attractive destination for elders seeking warmth and care. This type of project would create jobs for our many gifted healers and young people who want to stay close to home.
We have to recognize that corporations can’t “think local” and that if we are to survive, we have to think differently. We need to use imagination and creativity to engage our kupunas, our local farmers, our youth and our leaders—all of us—to make dramatic changes in how we operate.
Developers want to build hundreds of new projects. Show me the water, the food supply, the buyers for these houses, the jobs where people will work. I imagine a green rating system where the Planning Commission gives preference to projects that score the highest. My dream project would have a farm in the middle or on the border; it would supply food to the families that live there, including nursery starts for backyard gardens. A permaculture master plan would help preserve soil, minimize runoff, plant shade and fruit-bearing trees throughout. Micro-power would power the homes: small wind turbines, solar water and PV panels on the roof, with energy-efficient appliances required. Greenways would encourage gardening, walking and biking throughout the project. This is not far-fetched. I know some of our developers are thinking along these lines.
Harry Kim, the former mayor of the Big Island, got it right when he said that he didn’t just want his island to be a great visitor destination, he wanted it be a great place to live. Let’s get back to our plows, let’s work to make Maui’s soil healthy again, let’s clean up our water and air, let’s focus on feeding ourselves, keeping our food, fuel and fiber dollars here at home, working for us. Then we won’t have to keep praying to our ancestors to send gifts—we will have produced our own. Maui Time Weekly, Mark Sheehan