Speed needed in face of crisis, but so is financial accountability
By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer
The governor has said Hawai'i may be in for the worst economic crisis in its history, and the signs are coming faster than anyone expected.
Airlines were the first dominoes to fall, cutting back flights and employees. Aloha Airlines announced furloughs, and a similar announcement is expected this week at Hawaiian Airlines. Other businesses quickly followed, with people losing hours at everything from hotels and restaurants to stores and fitness centers.
The state unemployment office processed nearly 3,400 claims the week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, more than twice the usual load, most of them victims of tumbling tourism.
And that isn't the half of it.
"The community hasn't gotten the real unemployment (picture) because we have tried to dampen the impact," said Peter Schall, director of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, who has been urging his employees to take their vacation now so the company can avoid cutting other workers' hours.
But in crisis comes opportunity, and the governor and business leaders have begun searching for it with speed and efficiency.
Good ideas were abundant yesterday as some of the state's top hitters tossed them to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Free passes to visitors for nonprofit places like the zoo, the aquarium and the art academy. Visitor discounts on restaurants, shops and attractions. A slate of enticing activities on all islands that will make visitors want to come, things like "Twilight on the Beach," modeled after Brunch on the Beach, new festivals, rock concerts with Japanese celebrities.
Also, pitch Hawai'i as a place to have a family reunion and throw some free genealogy software into the package. Have a "lottery" for visitors on the airplane it gets them over their fear of flying and gives them something nice. Reach out to kama'aina to visit the places they haven't been for years and give them a discount to do it.
Roughly a dozen tourism executives offered advice and opinions yesterday, and though their specifics were diverse, they all sounded a single note: speed.
Speed must be a priority, because this train has a headstart, and catching it, no matter how fast we run, will be difficult at best.
But even in our panting, order is necessary. And justification. Just because it's a crisis doesn't mean baskets of money should be rained upon it without a full accounting of where it's going and what it is expected to achieve. The effort could require another $20 million $10 million of it from taxpayer money, which is fine. But somebody's got to at least keep track of where the public money is going.
Usually the tourism authority would direct the new plan because it makes visitor industry policy for the state. But the board, ironically, is hampered by its own transparency, which would automatically require a detailed accounting of where all the dollars are going. Under the state's sunshine laws, the authority must announce everything it plans to do a week in advance. And Hawai'i just doesn't have that kind of time.
So, the governor has appointed a special, three-person commission that expects to have a plan roughed out later this week and on the road in early October.
It all sounds good. But absent sunshine laws, it will be up to the Legislature, both in hearings later this week and in a special session next month, to get a good picture of where this new money will go and just exactly what it hopes to bring back.
Hawai'i can't afford to lose financial control of this situation so early in the game. Because it may very well go on longer than anyone would like.
Michele Kayal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org