Top mayoral candidates want to rein in tourism, but have differing opinions on how to do it

The Job Interview: Mayoral Candidates Talk Tourism

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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - It seems that after seeing Hawaii’s economy devastated because of its reliance on the visitor industry and the break from tourists many residents are enjoying, no one wants to go back to how it was when the state saw 10 million visitors a year.

During interviews for HNN’s “The Job Interview” special, the five top contenders for mayor outlined what they would do to rein in over-tourism while balancing the state’s financial needs.

While all five candidates said Hawaii needs to see fewer tourists, they didn’t agree on how to do that.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of those most critical of the industry is Rick Blangiardi, considered one of the more pro-business candidates.

But not this business.

“These are big multi-international hotels have been here, they’re really working in an extractive business that have been for a long time. And while they serve Hawaii well, you know, there’s a lot more I believe they could go back to doing in the community,” he said.

“I said yes, today publicly that I would go back to the hotels and negotiate with them. I actually want them to make a bigger contribution, and if anybody was ― I’m not gonna raise property taxes for residents, but if there’s anybody we would look at to a form of revenue would be the hotels.”

Calling tourism an extractive industry and demanding more in taxes from hotels makes Blangiardi the toughest on tourism. Former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa is also more prone to tax hotels than other property owners.

“But let’s look at who they are, let’s look at who they are,” she said.

“Most of your big resorts are not owned by people here, they are owned off shore. They’re in a global economic base, so the question is, ‘How much are they hurting versus our people are hurting.‘”

But most of the candidates’ ideas about extracting more money from tourists involve fees and taxes on individual travelers. Amemiya and Kim Marcos Pine both suggested a fee for the privilege of coming.

“There’s a couple of other ways you can impose a tourist passport tax to levy against tourists and it’ll be used to help provide or pay down infrastructure,” Pine said. “It’ll help to maintain our tourist attractions, like our natural tourist attractions, whether it’s the Koko Head stairs or other natural hikes.”

Former Mayor Mufi Hannemann points out that he supported the fees on tourists at Hanauma Bay, with money put back into the natural attraction, and he and others support higher fees for nonresidents at prime attractions.

All say they want to attract fewer visitors who spend more money, but they vary on how to do that.

Hanabusa says targeting certain countries might work.

July 20, 2020 at 1:12 PM HST - Updated July 20 at 1:37 PM

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Hawaii News Now · The Job Interview: Mayoral Candidates Talk Rail

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - One of the biggest issues facing the next Honolulu mayor ― in addition to coronavirus and its ongoing financial fallout ― will be the city’s beleaguered rail project.

The $9 billion rail line is by far the most contested issue in the community.

And during interviews for HNN’s “The Job Interview” special, the five top contenders for mayor offered differing views on how the project should proceed.

Mufi Hannemann, who started the project as mayor in 2010, said it’s important to understand that rail won voter and council approval when it was supposed to be a $5 billion project.

“Rail has exploded in costs over the past 10 years that I’ve been out of office,” said Hannemann. “I’m not into pointing fingers. All I’m gonna say is this: As the guy who started it, Iwanna go back and fix it.”

Unfortunately for Hannemann, many fingers are being pointed at him.

Auditors have said contracts were issued prematurely, which led to lawsuits that delayed construction and change orders due to surprise problems along the route.

Hannemann says he was not responsible for that.

“You can look it up, that release was done in Agust of 2010, so we did proceed legally, the cost did get out of control because of the numerous delays,” he said.

“So once again, I state: When I was there, we were on time, on budget, on schedule with all federal and state requirements to proceed.”

Councilwoman Kym Pine, meanwhile, alleges the project was victimized by corruption, greed and outright theft. Although there is a federal investigation, no one has been charged with a crime.

“Oh I’m just saying with the federal government ... they believe that crimes have taken place and that’s why they’re investigating around,” she said.

“I think when you look at a lot of these figures, when we had great tourists, it was probably pre- the bubble bursting with Japan, and it was what they were purchasing,” she said.

“So then if you’re looking at that, the question is what kind of, what country other than the United States continent would come to Hawaii.”

The candidates agree that the COVID-19 crisis creates a near blank slate on which a new tourism plan can be written.

Pine believes many small hotels will not survive and says they should be turned into housing. She wouldn’t have the government buy them but says she’d propose regulations that would render them unprofitable.

“A hotel that doesn’t have that much of a profit, but does it by volume, they’re not going to want to do that kind of business here," she said.

“But what you’re going to see is you’re going to attract the tourists that we’ve lost again by having these requirements.”

Hannemann and Amemiya predict that eliminating short-term vacation rentals in residential areas will cut hundreds of thousands ― even up to 2 million ― lower-spending visitors.

But Hannemann faces a lot of skepticism over his promise to reform tourism since he is employed by the Hotel and Lodging Association as their chief advocate in Hawaii.

He said his position is an asset, not a risk.

“I have long-standing relationships,” he said. “Let’s be clear: There’s no local economy if tourism doesn’t come back. $17 billion of revenues, $2 billion in taxes and it employs over 200,000 people.”

Hhannemann talks about building sustainable tourism and others talk about re-balancing or tweaking marketing. But no one offers a significant alternative industry that could replace or even rival tourism.

Industry critic Blangiardi says the money is too powerful a lure.

“We’ve been wholesaling to the masses for a long time. It has been the almighty dollar,” he said.

“How many planes can fly here? How many seats are in here and how many rooms nights can we fill at the expense, i think quite honestly, of even the visitor experience, but also especially to our residents. We’ve subordinated our residents in pursuit of that money so i’m not worried about the margins of these big hotels. i am not worried about that.”

Blangiardi expresses the frustration of many residents, stunned by the vulnerability of the dominant industry. But with little power to influence national and international economic forces that drive tourism, the next mayor will need cooperation of state leadership to make real change.

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