Paradise Reviewed: Hawaii Looks at Its Shortcomings

Heavily tourist-dependent, expensive, frequently uncomfortable in its race relations, and isolated, the state seeks new view of its prospects

FROM a picnic table here in her western Oahu front yard, Hawaii born-and-raised Edwena Kamohalii tells why the four siblings she grew up with have moved to Guam, California, Germany, and Japan.

``The cost of living in Hawaii is outrageous,'' says the 36-year-old construction worker, who lives with her husband in her mother's two-bedroom house to avoid the $1,200-a-month apartment rents in Honolulu 20 miles away. State statistics show housing costs doubled between 1986-90.

The cost of living now stands 39 percent higher than in the average United States metropolis, while the median income in Hawaii is only about 10 percent, or $2,000, higher than on the mainland.

``You're not going to make it flipping burgers at Burger King,'' says Mrs. Kamohalii. The same story can be heard in almost every corner of Hawaii.

Statehood in 1959 and the advent of jets that could deposit more tourists per hour than ocean liners in a month brought the islands a 30-year building and tourist boom that seemed as if it would never end.

But the 1990s has brought worldwide recession that until this year cut deeply into tourist visits, especially from the state's two biggest markets, California and Japan.

Because tourism brings 40 percent of gross state product, the tourism hit had a domino effect right through the economy.

Personal income rose an average 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent a year through most of the 1980s but dropped a sharp 1.6 percent in 1991, with 9 percent inflation that year, twice that of the US.

Then, airline wars on the US mainland largely ignored the high cost of flights to Hawaii, further whittling away an economic base. Major sugar and pineapple industries have been leaving the island. And a devastating hurricane in 1991 and soaring consumer prices have both cast a shadow.

``There's been a major drop in hotel values with great buys for bottom fishers,'' says Paul Brewbaker, chief economist for the Bank of Hawaii.

Both office and residential high-rise structures in Honolulu stand 20 to 25 percent dark while several luxury condo developments are altogether abandoned. Hotel resorts on Maui, Kauai, Lanai, and the largest island, Hawaii, have dipped below 70 percent occupancy.

One resort on the biggest island, built at a cost of $450 million, recently sold to the Hilton chain for $60 million.

``Developers have put up several of these tourist plants in several locations only to find out the sobering news ... they overbuilt,'' says David Wilson, a Honolulu public-relations executive.

His firm represents a New Zealand-owned company that is seeking to promote a more rugged and rural form of tourism than sun-bathing at hotel-choked Waikiki in Honolulu: water sports, hunting, fishing, and camping on the island of Molokai, which the group intends to keep free of hotels and golf courses.

WITH a solid 1994 summer tourist season under its belt, Hawaii's tourism skid may have bottomed out, but major players are looking to diversify for the future. ``Tourism will continue to be a mainstay but that isn't enough for some people,'' says John Griffin, retired editorial page editor for the Honolulu Advertiser. He backs a wider push to diversify agriculture beyond sugar and pineapple to garden crops. He envisions use of the islands for oceanographic studies and perhaps an international center for Pacific Rim nations.

Hawaii's future has become a lively topic for politicians this year.

The staunchly Democratic state - now eight years under Democrat John Waihee, and with nearly every governor and Senator since 1954 having been Democrats - hears the knocking of Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat Saiki, who is leading the polls by a hair.

And a burgeoning native Hawaiian sovereignty movement has become the talk of the islands from cabs to coffee houses. Various native factions, with staffed headquarters on several islands, advocating complete separation from the US, a nation within a nation, or monetary reparations and redress, are gaining currency.

``In less than a decade, the subject of Hawaiian sovereignty has evolved from a misunderstood and feared underground radicalism to a mainstream object of enlightened debate,'' says Mahealani Kamau'u, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.

Last year's 100th anniversary of the 1893 takeover of the Hawaiian monarchy as well as this year's return by the US government of the island of Kahoolawe to state control have given added currency to the debate.

For natives like Edwena Kamohalii, this whole backdrop translates into underlying tensions, exacerbated by the island's isolation 2,500 miles from the US mainland. Scarcity - of land, water, resources, money, food - keeps the stakes high and the political debate heated.

``You can't really get away from the issues here,'' says Edwena. She ticks off a long list: cost of government, education, crime, land regulation and planning, environment. ``I see change coming,'' she adds, pointing over a hill where a new development includes 360 new homes. ``I just hope it doesn't come too fast.''

For Honolulu mayoral candidate Arnold Morgado, all of Hawaii's top questions grow out of a single issue: cost of living. And therein lies an eternal paradox for island policy-makers.

``If we bring down the costs of education and housing and food, other goods, and tourism, all we do is bring a new demand, which brings new problems: people, development, traffic, congestion.''

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