Hawaii's future

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FOR news addicts padding around their hotel rooms here at 3 o'clock in the morning, there is George Shultz, or whoever else is testifying at the Iran-contra hearings, live on TV, courtesy of Ted Turner's Cable News Network. Hawaii is six hours behind Washington, so when the hearings begin there at 9 a.m. it's the middle of the previous night in Hawaii.

But when it comes to the regular evening network newscasts, the local television stations don't schedule them in the middle of the day; they just delay them and run them around Hawaiian dinnertime. That makes eminent good sense but adds a slight air of unreality; you know that the news is really six hours old and that much water may have gone under the bridge since the breathless news anchors did their stuff.

It is all a little symbolic of Hawaii's delightfully detached and laid-back atmosphere.

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The sun is golden by day. It rises and sets over exquisite ocean vistas. Downtown Honolulu, with its much-vaunted beach at Waikiki, is cluttered with commercial activity, but the rest of the Hawaiian islands are still a kind of tropical lotus-land. Balmy air, sparkling water, endless beaches, and blue sky combine to produce for many visitors a languid detachment from the Gulf tanker war.

Add to all this what on the surface seems an amicable racial mix of white, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Pacific-islander Hawaiians, cheerfully projecting the aloha spirit to visitors, and it is easy to see why travelers from afar love to come here, and why residents think they have it made.

Thus walkers walk, joggers jog, swimmers swim, and tennis players engage in leisurely games of tennis before breakfasting on tropical fruit and heading off to work. A favorite preoccupation of local businessmen is to get their effete colleagues from the mainland out of their dark two-piece suits and into aloha shirts, ideally crowned with leis of tropical blooms.

Despite all this, times are changing in the Pacific. Some thoughtful Hawaiians are beginning to ponder how Hawaii's role and future should change, too.

Once dependent on sugar and pineapple, Hawaii's economy is now closely tied to tourism. Five million visitors a year come here. While the tourist business has been carefully nurtured, everybody knows that it is fragile, linked to tourist whims and ups and downs in the world economy. Another big source of income is the United States military establishment, with marijuana-growing on the outer islands also a substantial and illegal money-spinner.

But Hawaii must not only consider its own internal economy; it must ponder its future in the Pacific, for that, too, is changing. Hawaii was once an almost obligatory stop for the traveler crossing the Pacific Ocean. That is no longer the case. Big, wide-body jets now thunder across the Pacific nonstop. Hawaii is no longer a required stop for rest and refueling.

If Hawaii is no longer a traveler's crossroads, can it be a bridge between the US and the Pacific? The East-West Center, a remarkable international educational center funded by the US Congress, is taking a look at this from its base in Honolulu. Mandated to promote better relations between the US and Asian and Pacific nations, it plays host to some 2,000 scholars and professionals each year working on a variety of cooperative ventures.

Meanwhile, the University of Hawaii is creating a new school for Hawaiian, Asian, and Pacific studies.

How will Hawaii cope with the new Pacific era dawning? Growth in the Pacific is outpacing that of Europe. Since 1980, US trade with Asia and the Pacific has outstripped US trade with Europe. Many feel that despite the complexities and problems of cooperation among Asian nations, the time is nearing for some new kind of Pacific Basin organization, at least encouraging economic, if not political, cooperation.

Thoughtful Hawaiians are pondering where their island-state fits.

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