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Business and beaches an inconvenient mix for Hawaii


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POSTED: Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The letter stated the obvious: All the lip in Washington about corporations that took federal bailout money then gave out unseemly bonuses and resort-trip rewards to its bigwigs could put a whole lot of hurt on Hawaii tourism, particularly the segment known in the industry as CMI or “;convention, meeting and incentives”; travel.

Truth be told, CMI as well as travel to the islands by individual tourists had already been falling off the cliff before the ruckus of oh-so-righteous indignation bounced around Capitol Hill, before the White House said “;no, you can't”; to the clueless corporate kahunas tone-deaf to the outrage and economic anxiety of Main Street taxpayers.

The tumble in tourism has sucked revenue from the state's treasury, grown a fast crop of unemployment and shuttered restaurants, shops and retailers, both flamboyant and humble, while catching other connected businesses in the ebb tide.

Something had to be done to pump blood into the faltering heart of the economy.

So state leaders, including county mayors and the governor, and industry officials wrote a letter to the president and members of Congress.

Don't, the letter pleaded, pass any laws that could hold back incentive trips and business meetings anymore than the images of fat cats lounging on white sand beaches currently have.

If the letter sounded somewhat needful, it was. And if the argument seemed somewhat familiar, it was that, too, though the circumstances were slightly different.

Poor, poor Hawaii. As the paradise of the Pacific, the 50th state has always had to battle against its beauty.

Conferences held here have forever been regarded as junkets, even when serious business is conducted. No matter how intensively the industry and state officials have tried to market the islands as a convenient East-West meeting place, as a venue for thoughtful or scholarly forums and summits, the hardened notion of Hawaii is that it's merely a delightful playground.

That's because the state has simultaneously been sold as idyllic, warm and fuzzy, the land of aloha. The split personality doesn't quite mesh.

But the industry and local politicians could not sit idle as Washington looked to rein in what a mob of angry Americans saw as extravagances on their dime. Even though many of the recent corporate cancellations weren't necessarily about possible legislative restrictions — and maybe more about economic reality — the situation demanded high-profile reaction.

So they wrote a letter.

I don't mean to put down the effort. It's just that as a small scattering of islands with few assets other than militarily strategic location and pretty landscape, Hawaii has little else to leverage.

We are unable to control the outside forces that constantly batter our shores. Tourism is sustained only by the health of a global economy and global stability. The number of military people stationed here brings in the money, but not like in other states that have large-scale defense manufacturing industries.

Hawaii has no major agricultural output, no substantial high-tech industry despite tax credits and other incentives. Attempts to jump-start research and development in renewable energy haven't yet taken hold and may not until the nation regains its financial footing.

Business travel groups will have a half-day conference next month to talk about how to get CMI going again and about how to improve duo-branding of the islands. It would be best if there were no mai tais at poolside.

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Cynthia Oi can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)