HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Experts say the vast majority of sex trafficking cases take place at hotels ― and Hawaii is no exception.
In fact, officials say the tourism industry is one of the major factors driving Hawaii’s illicit sex trade.
It’s those facts that drove nonprofit Ho’ola Na Pua to partner with the tourism industry to host the inaugural Campaign for a Safer Community Monday. The conference was aimed at educating tourism employees on how to recognize and report on sex trafficking.
Industry experts say sex trafficking impacts all types of hotels — from extremely affordable to luxury properties.
“Our industry needs to know how we can deal with this," said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, one of the symposium’s sponsors. “It’s illegal. It’s indecent. It’s immoral and we don’t want it associated with our hospitality industry at all.”
Chris Tatum, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the message to employees and guests is: “If you see something, say something.”
“We want to work with our operations team that are out there everyday with our guests that are observing and seeing,” he said. “If they don’t think that something’s right or they see something unusual, call the police.”
Experts say there’s only so much law enforcement can do to end sex trafficking in our community.
“Unfortunately, it’s so prevelant that we can’t just arrest our way out of the problem,” said Farshad Talebi, the former head of the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Unit at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
“This is going on everywhere. It’s not unique to Hawaii, but what we want to do is protect our community, keep our kids safe, keep exploited people safe and hold perpetrators accountable.”
And that's where key partnerships from sectors that come into contact with sex traffickers, their buyers and their victims are so crucial.
Here in Hawaii, that’s the tourism industry.
“There are 700,000 people wearing a Marriott nametag. And that’s many pairs of eyes. When educated properly and trained on what to look for, we can use those eyes for good,” said Trevor Bracher, the complex director of human resources at Marriott.
Thirteen states now require hotels to post signs explaining what trafficking is and what numbers to call if you suspect a problem. Four states require training for hospitality industry employees to learn how to detect concerns and report them to authorities.
“We’re creating a community that doesn’t allow this to happen anymore,” said Jessica Munoz, the president and founder of Ho’ola Na Pua, a local non-profit committed to preventing sex trafficking and providing direct services for children who have been exploited.
According to nonprofit Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking, only 8% of hoteliers can identify instances of sex or human trafficking before training.
After training, 44% of employees had identified cases within months.
The Seattle-based nonprofit says there are specific red flags each department should be aware of.
Trainers say front desk employees should be aware of adults checking in with unrelated minors — especially those without a lot of luggage or who make odd requests like a room near an exit.
They say another request that should raise concerns are if the hotel guests has a lot of “friends” or “relatives” wanting access to the room.
Among the warning signs housekeepers should look out for are: Unaccompanied minors in a room, especially during school hours; a “do not disturb” sign posted on the door of a room or refusal of cleaning services for several days; and excessive amounts of condoms, towels, or hotel keys.
“We recognize that the hospitality industry has a lot of eyes and ears on what’s happening in the community. And if we know that victims are being trafficked and exploited in multiple different places, they offer that ability to be able to detect, to see, to recognize and to report which is the most important thing,” said Munoz.
“Ending this takes all of us coming together with that message, spreading that word and creating that change that’s needed to ultimately protect our community.”