We’ve all the seen the video. Posted on YouTube on Feb. 16, 2014, it showed a young local man repeatedly cursing some white people at Kalama Beach Park in Kihei, all why they record him with their smart phone. It all started when one of the people spoke up after seeing a local guy–apparently not the guy in the video–throw something at a nearby dog. “This is Hawaii, we do whatever we fucking want out here, abuse dogs, hit women, that’s all we do,” the guy on the video says. He then curses them, and white people in general, for one minute and 37 seconds, every now and then throwing in a (true) line about how white people stole Hawaii from those who were here first. It’s appalling, ridiculous, ghastly and even a little funny, and for all those reasons instantly went viral after MauiWatch posted it online. To date, it’s gotten more than 420,000 views–a respectable number, sure, but it’s no Gangnam Style (2.4 billion views and climbing).
Honestly, I’d long forgotten about the Kalama Park video. Every place has troublemakers, and one of Maui’s happened to get recorded saying things that ran counter to the “aloha spirit” that most people around the world associate with Hawaii. But I was reminded of the nearly two-year-old video during a recent chat with two public officials about the new Maui County Office of the Hospitality Industry Advocate (OHIA) they’re setting up. Reminded, because they kept bringing it up.
“That Kalama Park video–that’s not who we are,” said David Ching, who works as the county’s First Assistant to the Managing Director and is in charge of the new office, on Sept. 2. “Maybe we need to be reminded of it.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are a few things I should explain first. To begin with, OHIA is still very much in its infant stages, and right now just consists of Ching and fellow county official Ipo Mossman. In fact, it shouldn’t even really be called an office. “Right now it’s a project,” Ching told me. “We only use ‘office’ because it fits ‘OHIA.’”
Secondly, the existence of OHIA owes itself to a statistic Ching told me at the beginning of our talk. “Are you aware that the hospitality industry is the largest single economic driver we have?” Ching asked me. “It’s 40 percent of our economy. We’re the most dependent county on hospitality in the state. Nearly one in every two jobs is dependent on the industry. It’s scary if you consider what happens if the industry goes south. It would impact massive numbers of people in the county.”
And yes, while we already have a Maui Visitors Bureau (funded to the tune of $3.5 million in county tax dollars each year), Ching says OHIA will provide the county with information and assistance it doesn’t currently get from the MVB.
“We took at look at what government is doing right now to support the hospitality industry,” Ching said. “We support the MVB, but what are we doing? How is it working? What we’re paying them to do is market Maui County. But we don’t really have a central coordinating agency for this industry. Before things get out of hand and we turn into another Waikiki, we have to find out what’s going on with the needs of the community and the needs of the industry. Are they healthy or are they clashing? It’s really important for the county to balance it out before it becomes a problem.”
As an example, County Communications Director Rod Antone told me that it’s come to the county’s attention that various hotels are apparently telling visitors that they can kill time before their flights home by hanging out at Kanaha Beach Park–an area heavily used by kite and wind surfers (who don’t always get along) that also has a considerable homeless population living in the brush.
But Ching and Mossman want to go much further than merely coordinate information between hotels and county officials. They’ve also produced a three-point “Strategic Action Chart” outlining what they want to do (see below). They’ve shown it to various individuals in the community to solicit input and suggestions, but it hasn’t been formally made public. One of those individuals, Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez, took away very strong feelings after his meeting with Ching and Mossman.
“I was pleased they invited us,” he said (former Maui Planning Commissioner Dick Mayer accompanied him). But as far as what OHIA wants to do, Perez summed it up this way: “They want more international flights, improved infrastructure for visitors and they want to teach people on Maui to have more aloha.” Perez called it all “pretty appalling.”
Let’s examine each of the three facets of the OHIA strategic plan in greater detail:
First, here’s the county’s jargon on what it wants to do: “Create a coordinated visitor industry support organization facilitated by the County OHIA program that will ensure suitable infrastructure or infrastructure initiatives are in place to facilitate a world class visitor experience that is balanced with the non-financial needs of our community by 2019.”
Once you strip out the buzzwords and cliches, what you get is pretty close to Perez’s summation. You also get evidence that Ching and Mossman are listening to criticism–Perez says the last dozen words of the above statement about the community’s “non-financial needs” were added after he and Mayer met with OHIA.
Again, Antone offered a specific example of what OHIA might recommend: “We may have to put up signs in a foreign language,” he said. “Waikiki is very Japanese-friendly. Is that something we need to look at? We have to figure out how the visitor industry impacts our infrastructure, our emergency services–like when we pick up 14 people from Bamboo Trail.”
As far as the county’s roads, services and accommodations are concerned, Ching said they’re already pretty maxed out. That becomes very apparent when we look at the second part of the OHIA plan.
Travel to Maui Goal
Put simply, OHIA wants to bring more visitors from Asia (especially Japan, China, Korea and Australia) to Maui. “At least 67,500” more visitors each year by 2017, to be exact.
The reason for wanting more tourists from Asia is simple: most of Maui County’s visitors today come from Canada and the Mainland U.S. Any hiccup in air travel from those two areas and the county is in big trouble.
I asked Ching where he got such a specific number for the visitor increase. “That represents one flight per day,” he said. “We did a small study, and that would have $70-100 million impact to the community in terms of revenue.”
At this point, that’s all the visitor growth OHIA wants. That’s because the county apparently can’t handle anything more. “Our infrastructure is very limited,” Mossman said. “If we have one flight, that’s what we can handle. The fear that we’ll be inundated with all these flights–we don’t have the infrastructure for that. We’d be lucky to take one flight a day. The infrastructure really can’t take much more.”
In the late 1980s, the state tried to lengthen the runways at Kahului Airport so it could accommodate international flights. Opposition killed the plan, but these days the airport can accept direct international flights with its existing concrete.
“We already have international flights to Kahului Airport from Canada,” said Ching. “They use pre-clearance airports.” Those airports, which largely exist in Canada, include their own U.S. Customs offices. That means travelers go through customs before they board, allowing them to enter Kahului Airport like any passenger coming from the Mainland U.S. According to Ching, Narita Airport in Japan may soon take on pre-clearance status.
“That market is coming,” he said. “We want to be prepared.”
For Perez, opening up Kahului Airport to more international flights is asking for trouble. “Little fire ants have gotten out of control,” he said. “They’ve already devastated large parts of Tahiti–people have abandoned some of their ancestral lands. No one seems to be thinking of the economic impact from invasive species. Brown tree snakes can come here in a plane’s wheel well. If brown tree snakes get here, it will cost us tens of millions of dollars annually. The Maui Invasive Species Committee [MISC] does one interception of LFA per week. Who knows what they’re not intercepting? The little fire ants even go onto the beach, the sand. They’re tiny, but their bite leaves a welt that could last a week.”
Ching says invasive species are already a concern and more international flights won’t change much.
“We do have invasive species inspection areas,” he said. “There are risks with flights from anywhere. Other than what we’re doing right now, I don’t really have an answer.”
The day after I spoke to Ching, The Maui News reported that the island’s invasive species inspectors were “short-staffed”–down to about eight from a high of 17 in 2009, with four or five positions vacant “for several years.”
Aloha Spirit Goal
The last part of the OHIA plan is the most complex–and potentially the most controversial. It’s what Ching and I were talking about when he brought up the 2014 Kalama Park video.
The goal is to “Improve perception of Aloha Spirit by implementing and supporting customer service improvements using the Hawaiian Culture and improve the on island (on County) visitor experience,” according to the OHIA strategic action chart.
This is, straight up, teaching the island to be nicer to tourists.
“We need to get some education out there,” Ching said. “A new understanding of the host culture, what Aloha Spirit is all about. Hawaiians gave the world celestial navigation and the Aloha Spirit. Aloha is a positive thing–ask anyone in the world.”
According to Ching and Mossman, OHIA would start with the county government itself. “Say the county decides that all its employees should know about Ho‘oponopono [an ancient Hawaiian problem-solving process involving forgiveness] and act that way. We would then educate everyone. We’re hoping that education would tell people how to act towards each other, to the community. The county has 2,500 employees–if they can go home and impress it on their families, that’s a start.”
Mossman added that officials in Kauai County and Hawaii County are already doing similar training programs for their employees.
“We’d probably do a whole series on the Aloha Spirit,” said Ching. “Ipo and I are both part Hawaiian, and this is an issue for the entire community. We gotta live it, and it’s kind of defeating when we think about where it’s at now.”
Ching and Mossman have their hearts in the right place, but this call for more aloha spirit reminded me of what Dr. Sidney Lehua Iaukea wrote in her 2014 book Keka‘a: The Making And Saving of North Beach West Maui. One of her earliest jobs was as a server at the Sheraton Resort in Kaanapali, and it required her to take “How to be Aloha” classes.
“I was deeply disturbed by these experiences, but not able to adequately formalize or articulate the problem,” she wrote. “It would be many years before I could put into words the discomfort I felt for being treated like a servant, and told to do so with a smile on my face and aloha in my heart. I have been critical of the tourism industry ever since.”
Which brings us back to the 2014 video of the local guy in Kalama Park. Yes, the video shows an angry guy spouting racism. But it also shows true societal troubles. Maui is very much a bifurcated island–wealthy (or at least well-off) tourists fly here while people born here serve them mac salad and kalua pork and clean their hotel toilets. All the old promises of weaning Maui away from tourism and bringing higher-paying tech jobs and careers have, over the last four decades, produced minimal results.
We’re still very much a county that mostly makes it living by catering to tourists. Given the relatively low wages these jobs carry, combined with the way in which a white-led coup toppled the Hawaiian Kingdom and then integrated the new “Republic of Hawaii” into the United States, the anger exhibited by that young man in Kalama Park becomes understandable (though his actions are by no means excusable). It’s funny–his full-throated ranting and raging seem almost like a cry for race war, but in the end his actions merely spurred the creation of just another layer of county bureaucracy.
“We’re having three families to a house, sewage overflowing from injection wells is destroying our reefs,” Perez told me. “So many things would be improved if we focused on the quality of life of our residents. Then we wouldn’t have to teach residents about aloha.”
OHIA doesn’t yet have a website or actual office, but Ching and Mossman said they’re interested in what the public has to say. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please email them to [email protected] and/or [email protected]
Cover design: Darris Hurst