THERE are problems in paradise.
In Hawaii the tropical sun still shines brightly while the trade winds riffle through the palm trees, the beaches are still exquisite, the islands are still a mecca for surfers, and a mixture of peoples from all over Polynesia make this one of the most attractive regions in the world to visit.
But beneath the surface, problems loom.
One is caused by the advent of the wide-body jetliner. With the shorter-range planes of the past, a stopover in Hawaii was almost mandatory for any trans-Pacific traveler. That brought business and projection of Hawaii's image, sometimes persuading corporations to make Hawaii the hub of their Pacific and Asian operations. But today, Hawaii is no longer the crossroads of the Pacific. A traveler can fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo without stopping in Hawaii for refueling; indeed it is a diversion from the most direct routes.
Thus a variety of US businesses that used to maintain regional offices in Hawaii have pulled out. One took the entire staff back to New York on grounds it was more efficient, and a lot cheaper given Hawaii's high living costs, to cover Asia from Manhattan.
Similarly, one airline after another has dropped service in and out of Hawaii or has cut back the frequency of flights. While US airlines fly plane loads of tourists to Hawaii from the mainland and back, fewer and fewer fly on from Hawaii to Asia.
With great beauty but no natural resources, another of Hawaii's problems is that it has become overly dependent on tourism. Various surveys have tried to move Hawaii in the direction of aqua-farming, or the manufacture of small, specialty products that could be shipped cheaply around the world, or as a center of high technology. But Hawaii has been unable to discover the kind of niche that has propelled some other territories lacking natural resources, like Singapore and Hong Kong, into prosperity.
This dependence on tourism makes Hawaii especially vulnerable in times of recession, when the tourist flow from the American mainland and Japan declines sharply.
Sensitivity to the importance of tourism has political ramifications. Hawaii is a liberal state with a Polynesian live-and-let-live attitude about many social issues. Recently the legislature has been debating legalization of same-sex marriage, which some legislators think might attract homosexuals to Hawaii. They have been pondering the negative impact of such a possible inflow on the more conservative tourist stream.
At the very core of politics in Hawaii today, however, is a move toward ``sovereignty,'' although that means different things to different people. To a small majority it means secession from the Union. To others it means establishing for native Hawaiians something like the mainland reservations for native Americans. To still others it means recompense from the federal government for lands annexed after the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani and the Hawaiian royal house in 1893.
The sovereignty issue is fueled by a quest for lost cultural identity, and a surge of Hawaiian nationalism in turn fueled by the adverse conditions under which many native Hawaiians live. The number of pure Hawaiians is a few thousand, but around 200,000 have some native Hawaiian ancestry; they make up about 18 percent of the population. Statistics show they lag in health, education, housing, and earning capacity, compared with other island groups.
No serious observer believes that the sovereignty debate will result in the secession of Hawaii, or even part of it, from the United States. If Hawaii has economic problems now, how would a sovereign Hawaiian nation support itself economically? But substantial support exists for some kind of compensation for the overthrow of the monarchy.
It is all part of a critical self-examination of Hawaii's role in a changing world.