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I Planned to Move to Hawaii. And Then I Realized Why I Shouldn’t

PHOTO: Stan Jones/Shutterstock

Maybe one day. But definitely not now.

For some reason, it all started around the holidays. After nearly a year of being cooped up, my partner and I decided that what we needed was a good old-fashioned road trip. That idea was quickly squashed after his parents reminded us of that thing called snow. Why would we set off on a cross-country road trip when half of the U.S. was being pummeled by weather? They weren’t wrong, and while we had considered the sites we’d see and working from the road seemed nice, we hadn’t necessarily accounted for getting stuck in a storm or destinations being closed due to inclement weather.

Somehow the idea then pivoted to Hawaii. Travis, my partner, prompted the idea with such gusto and enthusiasm I couldn’t help but be sold. We had also recently heard of a program called Movers and Shakas—a nod to the iconic Hawaiian hand gesture meaning “hang loose”—who were actively recruiting talent to move to the island to “diversify the island economy.”

According to their site, “Movers and Shakas aims to attract purpose-driven remote workers, especially returning kamaʻaina, to come to Hawaiʻi and actively contribute to the community.”

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If selected (it’s an application-based program) participants have to agree to move to Hawaii for a least 30 consecutive days, but the program hopes those selected will choose to stay longer.

Those in the program get a free flight to Hawaii, discounted hotel rates, and built-in community. With the huge uptick in remote work, it seems like a near dream scenario to upgrade your work-from-home situation to a tropical paradise.

Unfortunately, we had missed the initial program cut-off date for January, but we figured we would stay a month, given that that was the original plan for our road trip.

Forgetting about the whole worldwide pandemic thing, it seemed like a great idea. The next course of action was finding a place to stay. I’ve never been to Hawaii but my partner has been several times, and pushed for Kauai. “That’s where they filmed Jurassic Park,” he relayed with glee.

Poipu Beach in KauaiJeff Whyte/Shutterstock

Trouble is, everyone seemed to be in on that bit of trivia. Kauai is not only ridiculously beautiful but exceedingly popular. Every time we tried to book a sublet or an Airbnb it would swiftly vanish. We were fools to think that in the dead of winter everyone and their mother wouldn’t be flocking to Hawaii, pandemic be damned.

Not to mention the island is fairly remote, at least more remote we were used to, with bigger hubs like Lihue and Kapaa being the only exceptions. We had the nerve to want both the quiet seclusion of a remote spot and the easy access to a larger hub. We wanted our pineapple upside-down cake and we wanted to eat it, too. It was like House Hunters: Hawaii, with us poring over listing photos and obsessively Googling, “What to know before you move to Hawaii.”

But we soon became aware of what a stark difference in lifestyle that we’d have to get accustomed to. Travis and I were hardcore Haoles. We were woefully unprepared to live the Aloha style.

In a case of extreme irony, the life we were hoping to take a break from in California (constant traffic, convenience, and centralization) is one we actually needed in order to function in our day-to-day lives. We needed stable, reliable Wi-Fi and cell service to work, and we would have to forgo our car.

And then there was the tiny, miniscule, insignificant fact that we were planning to uproot ourselves in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. While Hawaii was actively trying to recruit people to live there as a means to stimulate the economy I couldn’t help but start to feel like, well, a colonizer.

Quick history lesson. In 1778 Captain James Cook became the first European to arrive in Hawaii. In the 181 years between Cook’s arrival and Hawaii’s eventual annexation as a U.S state, a pattern of disease and colonization ensued. In 1820, the first Christian missionaries arrived, soon followed by Western traders and whalers. According to Smithsonian magazine, when Cook arrived in Hawaii there were about 300,000 Hawaiian natives, by 1853, just 75 years later, that number had dwindled to 70,000.

By 1893, Hawaii’s king crop of sugarcane was controlled by American trading. Leading up to the 1898 annexation of the nation, Hawaii’s last ruler, Queen Liliuokalani, was placed on house arrest and forced to abdicate her throne in 1895. Despite the support of then-President Grover Cleveland, both she and the President were overruled by Sanford Dole, a missionary descendant (who was nursed by Hawaiian women!) and advocate for the Westernization of Hawaii. He had long been working towards annexation, and after the Queen’s removal, made himself governor of the state. His cousin, James Dole would later become “The Pineapple King.”

I doubt many readers know of the horrific injustices the Hawaiian people have endured since colonization. Land theft, environmental destruction, and literal disease to name a few, but it doesn’t take the smartest person to realize that what happened then and what’s happening now is inextricably linked.

The first problem is that Hawaii, and many other countries and destinations populated by people of color, rely heavily on an economy built upon tourism—meaning their economies have taken a horrible hit due to COVID-19.

Hawaii’s economy relies heavily on tourism.

According to a report released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority in 2019, Hawaii’s tourism industry brought nearly $18 billion into their local economy. While the report for 2020 isn’t available yet, it’s easy to imagine that amount will be shockingly lower. Hawaii’s unemployment numbers alone have consistently stayed above national averages. In September 15.1% of Hawaiians were unemployed in comparison to the national average of 7.9%.

According to a report released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority in 2019, Hawaii’s tourism industry brought nearly $18 billion into their local economy. While the report for 2020 isn’t available yet, it’s easy to imagine that amount will be shockingly lower. Hawaii’s unemployment numbers alone have consistently stayed above national averages. In September 15.1% of Hawaiians were unemployed in comparison to the national average of 7.9%.

At the same time, when these islands open their doors to “safe” and “restricted” travel and tourism, they’re also opening themselves up to mass COVID-19 outbreaks. At the beginning of the pandemic, Governor David Ige issued a mandatory two-week quarantine period for travelers visiting Hawaii, but updated the policy in November to allow for a bypass, if upon arrival you have a negative COVID-19 test. The issue immediately made travel to the island jump triple from what it had been at the start of quarantine. But at what cost?

It dawned on me that Hawaii and other countries and islands populated by people of color are caught between a rock and a hard place. They face a choice: endure an economy broken by no fault of their own, or open their island to a rampant, deadly disease?

These are big, open-ended questions, and issues that have been of concern to Native Hawaiians like Na’alehu Anthony, who serves on the Movers and Shakas advisory board.

Anthony told me that when he heard about the program he reached out directly and asked, “what’s the goal?” He immediately asked for a meeting and requested to put Native Hawaiians on the advisory board.

Even before the pandemic arrived in Hawaii, the state was facing economic burdens. “The median cost of a home is north of $700,000…and yet the wages here have been relatively stagnant,” Anthony says. That means Native Hawaiians get priced out, and often have to move out of state to places like California, Oregon, and Arizona.

The true point of the program is bigger than a free ticket to Hawaii, it’s about making Hawaii stronger by shifting its economy to weather any kind of storm. The first group of 50 remote workers (out of nearly 90,000 applications) arrived in late February and includes a diverse group of tech workers (who can provide “brain gain” and bolster Hawaii’s tech sector), non-profit workers (who were drawn to the community element of the project) and most importantly, nearly 65% kama’aina, or those who are originally from Hawaii (but were likely priced out).

Nicole Lim, Movers and Shakas’ program director, initially had her own reservations about the program, too. A Chinese-American born and raised in Hawaii, she was an incredibly accomplished tech worker living in San Francisco with degrees from Yale and Wharton. One day a lightbulb went off and she realized she was living someone else’s life. Cut to a full-on “Eat, Pray, Love moment.”

Lim traveled quite literally all over, eventually becoming a yoga instructor, a life coach and, up until the pandemic, was teaching yoga in Patagonia. When she returned to Hawaii, a mainlander friend tipped her off about Mover and Shakas.

“I was viscerally angry about it,” Lim says. “I had all these ideas about it destroying the aloha spirit.”

So she decided to write an op-ed in the Honolulu newspaper The Star-Advertiser, that grappled with what she identified as her own “anti-mainlander xenophobia.”

The CEOs of local Hawaiian businesses that were concepting Movers and Shakas saw the op-ed and asked her to run the program. And the rest is history.

“Having these mixed feelings makes me a better leader for this program. This isn’t a zero-sum game. This is a pilot we’re trying to test to see how we can build community here.”

It’s not about shutting people out, but about bringing people in. Those who truly connect with the Hawaiian spirit and want to diversify and contribute to Hawaii in a meaningful way.

“It’s not just a free trip to Hawaii [and] the fact that nearly 90,000 people applied for 50 spots is a huge testament to the fact that people really want to engage and have an authentic local experience,” Lim said.

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe Hawaii and other paradisiacal destinations are being viewed solely as escapes—the way my boyfriend and I (glibly) initially viewed our trip.

Anthony sees this as an opportunity to change the way tourist-based economies market themselves.

“Maybe we’ve just been missing it,” he says. “Maybe 20-somethings want to engage in the kind of interactions we’re just not offering them.”

Lim echoes the sentiment, telling me the first group in the program is “excited to bond with each other and contribute.”

Movers and Shakas is a clear demonstration of the incredible strength of the Hawaiian people, who are familiar with these issues and are taking it upon themselves to strengthen and build their community and economy. The program is an embodiment of community and connection coming in to help save the day and help build a better future–one that doesn’t rely on an inequitable system as has been the case for so long.

Which brings me to Kim Kardashian.

Who can forget Kim Kardashian’s lavish million-dollar 40th birthday party on a remote island in French Polynesia? When photos surfaced of the top-secret affair last October, it sparked outrage on the internet, with Kim’s trite Twitter reveal almost sounding like satire.

“After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal for just a brief moment in time.”

The sheer ambivalence of the situation highlights how deep the divide was before COVID-19 and how the disease further exemplifies the inequities between the elite and everyone else.

People of color often have to rely on the commerce that wealthy people bring, even if it means putting themselves at risk for contracting COVID and dying.

Here in Los Angeles, where I live and where outdoor dining has just been reopened, critics of the reopening have failed to see the real issue. Small businesses have had to stay open for survival, even if it’s meant putting employees at risk. Throughout the pandemic, people in hospitality have had to rely on the wealthy, the affluent, and celebrities because there has been no bailout for the hospitality or travel industries. Restaurants have had to make the difficult choice of opening their doors despite safety concerns, or keeping them closed and paying the literal cost of closing a business.

With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, finally, some help is on the way, including a $28.6 billion dollar Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

But it never should have been a Sophie’s Choice for restaurant owners, employees, and patrons in the first place. It shouldn’t be on us to come up with the answers or pivot based on our government’s lack of support. The real solution has always been getting federal, state, and local assistance to the hospitality industry and protecting hospitality professionals.

Further, tourism-dependent economies should look to incredible programs like Movers and Shakas as a necessary model for a stable, thriving economy.

On an individual level, the hospitality industry can still use our support. So what can you do? Aside from ordering from your favorite restaurants (through them directly and not a third-party delivery app) you can support charities like The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation which has a number of resources to assist the industry on its site. You could also get involved with organizations like America’s Table who have created an action plan to provide economic relief to the hospitality industry. You can also buy gift cards for friends and family to their favorite spots, book trips and events in advance, or purchase merch to keep your favorite restaurants and businesses afloat.

As for me, Hawaii is clearly shelved. We’d love to eventually visit and give back to such an amazing place that gives so much to the world. But until that day, as tempting as island hopping may be, the safest, most gracious, most responsible move is to wait until the world’s a little more back to normal.

6 Comments
M

We too applied to the Movers & Shakas program and were not accepted. I can work from anywhere with reliable internet as can my wife and, from experience, we knew we could accomplish this on Maui without living in a city. This was not just trying to get away from the cold. We've visited Hawaii every year for the past 15 years at all times of the year and have tried each time to get more involved in the local culture rather than the resorts. It is not easy but it is worthwhile. We wanted to learn how too cook and eat and live like a local. We could drink in the natural beauty, both of the natural environment and the people. We tried to spend our limited resources on locally owned and operated business, fruit stands, food trucks and small businesses. We thought that, if we could live there for a month or two, it might get us closer to understanding if moving to Hawaii might work. Perhaps we'll always be tourists but perhaps just a bit closer to being a welcome mainlander.

Avatar for tomfuller
tomfuller March 15, 2021

Our daughter and Son-in-Law boutht a house in Ewa Beach (Oahu) in November 2020. They moved from Maryland. They are happy there. He can work anywhere with a good internet connection. She is an RN and works in the Covid ward in the Queens Hospital. They are not tourists. My wife and I hope to visit sometime late this year.

S
SKCYCLES March 15, 2021

Is the opening picture from the Cliffs at Princeville?  Looks VERY familiar.  We will be going there in May.  Your article was quite interesting and makes one think about the concept of living in Hawaii.  Thank you.

J
jasminemullins4508 March 14, 2021

This was probably the first truly accurate article I've read not only in regards to COVID and Hawai'i but just Hawai'i in general. Thank you so much for taking the time to truly educate your self and now others about the issues. You are of course the kind of people we welcome to our islands with open arms. Mahalo and aloha. 

S
SaginawRob March 13, 2021

This is a very well written and thoughtful article. Thank you!