It’s the wrong question.
Better question: How do we make our local economy and lifestyle sustainable?
Blogger Damon Tucker is driving the social-media bandwagon to attract tourists to Puna, so thought I’d jump on and talk story.
But first a confession–I’ve been resisting writing about this. For a couple reasons: one, it’s not really a cross-cultural topic, although in a very general sense it is about culture. (Or so I rationalized.) So here we are, kicking it around in the Intercultural Twilight Zone.
The second reason is that the more I thought about Damon’s question the more I realized how complex the issue is. To further muddy the waters, we’re in the midst of desperate times with fear and emotion clouding our better judgment. I’m still digesting the current situation, but some things are very clear to me.
I’m convinced that if we are coming from a place of desperation, if we act without a foundation of shared values, if we say yes to every opportunity even if it means unsustainable wages paid by unsustainable companies that don’t invest in our communities, then we’re just mortgaging our children’s future.
The smarter way to meet the challenge of making our communities more sustainable is to create a practical strategy based on a philosophical foundation that includes, but is not dependent on, tourism.
A “philosophy” by definition is grounded in values and assumptions. Until someone convinces me otherwise these are mine:
1) It’s never good to put all your eggs in one basket, especially tourism. Diversification is the only long-term way to make our communities sustainable and healthy.
2) Planning for long-term success is a higher quality approach than grasping for short-term benefits.
3) Our community will benefit long-term if our economy is stable and sustainable (with an emphasis on sustainability)
4) We all benefit by supporting quality companies with a stake in, and desire to contribute to our communities
5) The East Side’s “sense of place” is the essence of its value. Hence the East Side must distinguish itself from other vacation destinations by tapping into this intrinsic value.
Good Development, Bad Development
Damon says the answer is increasing tourism while reducing the number of people moving here.
I respectfully disagree. Unless we secede from the Union, there’s nothing we can do to stop people from moving to Hawaii–or to anywhere in the U.S. for that matter. The best we can hope for is controlled growth, ideally using quality or “goodness” as our guiding principle.
And this begs for a distinction between good development and bad development. The desperate person makes no distinction, and simply grabs for whatever straw is available with no forethought on the long-term consequences.
Ponder this scenario: what if we focus on increasing tourism willy-nilly but fail to control residential development? It’d be the proverbial “double-whammy”, one that would almost certainly destroy our sense of place.
Our community benefits most by striking a balance between local residential development, business (including tourism), and diversified ways to create sustainable communities.
No doubt the influx of Hawaii’s East Side residents in recent years has stretched our infrastructure. We absolutely need to get a handle on this. But let’s not delude ourselves into believing we can stop the flow of people coming. (And has anyone considered the possibility that a boon in tourism might attract even more residents to our island?)
It’s an insult to human creativity to limit ourselves to the two extreme choices of “unbridled development” or “total rejection of development”.
More than ever we need out-of-the-box thinking. We need an alternative perspective, one that assumes a respect for local culture and by extension, the a’ina, based on the values of authenticity and sustainability.
The Pono Prism
Some very wise, forward-thinking folks have been preaching sustainability and authenticity long before I got here.
About five years ago I had the opportunity to hear Peter Apo speak at a conference in Honolulu. A native Hawaiian with a view that espouses sustainability and maintaining our “sense of place”, Peter’s vision was the answer to my Japanese clients’ quest for the authentic Hawaiian experience. The value of Peter’s view is that it’s rooted in Hawaiian tradition. Here’s his take on development in an article titled Balanced Economic Growth (originally published in Hawaiian Hospitality Magazine, May 2007):
“Development, like any other economic activity, is a neutral activity–until the specific business model begins to unfold. Only then does it become clear how the development will affect the community’s sense of place and whether it will result in a quality of life step forward or backward for those who have to live in and around it.”
For a big picture perspective, Peter asks us to envision a triangle:
“At one corner write Economic Activity (in this case you can say Development). At the second corner write Place. And the third corner should say Host Community. The challenge I see is that most business models are so economic activity-centric with narrowly defined measures of success that they often succeed at the expense of the Place and the Host Community. For instance, our visitor industry business model was very lineal in its maturation process. Visitor Industry. Visitor. The model rushes to accommodate all the creature comforts of the visitor and in the process begins to change the place into looking like the place the visitor was trying to escape from. Changes to the place are in some cases so profound that entire communities undergo a dramatic “sense of place” conversion. One chilling effect is that people who work there can no longer afford to live there.”
What I admire about Peter’s take on the issue is his focus on maintaining a harmonious balance of man, place and commerce. He points out that tourism too often takes the rap for problems related to public policy–that is, any policy that would allow inappropriate development to occur.
But here’s my favorite quote from the article: “Planning and permitting processes that ask the wrong questions makes it worse not better.”
Indeed viable solutions to curbing “bad” development will continue to evade us until we start asking the right questions.
What are the right questions? Peter says to consider the “Pono Prism”. It posits five simple questions to guide decisions on determining what is “appropriate development” in Hawaii’s communities:
1) How does the activity make Hawaii a better place?
2) How does the activity create opportunities for prosperity for all segments of the community?
3) How does the activity help connect the community’s past to its future?
4) How does the activity bring dignity to the community and the people who live around it?
5) How does the activity insure that the people who live in and around it can continue to live there?
It Sounds Good in Theory, But…
Yeah it looks good on paper, but what about the real world?
We can only speak from experience. Our business operates on nearly identical guidelines and, in the midst of a serious recession, we are thriving. (And we’re proud to report that quality service providers in our community are benefiting from our good fortune as well.)
It’s worth noting that our business ethics have a strong Japanese/Confucian flavor. And that’s really what’s makes this so interesting: we share with a wise Hawaiian man, an appreciation for social harmony and the belief that businesses have a moral responsibility to contribute to the communities they serve.
Now before you accuse us of practicing selfless altruism consider our more practical business motivation: we acknowledge that, without a healthy community, our business is absolutely unsustainable. We are all connected.
Does our business model pass the Pono Prism test? You be the judge:
• We choose Quality customers over sheer numbers.
• We offer authentic experiences and educational programs through local educational institutions.
• We focus on finding customers who want to stay in Hawaii longer, and participate in educational activities.
• We encourage Japanese visitors to consider retiring here, and coach them on responsible ways to behave while they’re living in our communities.
• We seek out visitors who want to contribute to our communities.
• We source work to local service providers who provide high quality services, and keep money in our communities.
• We offer programs that add quality to the visitor/retiree experience while involving and enriching the host community.
Our products vary but our values do not. Our motives transcend tourism, indeed profits. We choose not to be dependent on tourism: we are committed to diversification. We are also committed to extending to visitors and fellow residents alike, warm hospitality with a human touch, while maintaining our community’s sense of place, and the dignity of the people who live here.
What’s the Answer?
At the risk of sounding Japanese–What’s the question?
Quality answers come to those who ask the right questions. And since everyone’s got a different situation, cookie-cutter answers just don’t cut it anyway.
What’s the answer? I think that it’s not relying on government, the HTA, or anyone else to bring business to Puna. It’s best driven by local people and businesses, stakeholders who care about the community. It’s our gig, our community, our sense of place, and I admire anyone who takes the bull by the horns and makes good things happen. (Yeah I’m talking to you, Damon.) Just understand that no good can come if we act out of desperation.
Nor can we rely on the government to regulate business in a way that reflects the values of our community, including the Pono Prism. They’d no doubt find a way to take the pono out of the prism.
No, the onus is on private businesses to look beyond the bottom line and commit to doing good things for the community; in turn, the community can do its part by supporting local, ethical businesses that practice Pono-Prism thinking.
Is tourism the magic bullet? Einstein said the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over expecting a different result. It’s time we stop the insanity. If we continue our over-reliance on tourism, the vicious cycle of boom-or-bust will continue to haunt us, and we’ll find ourselves back in the very same pickle we’re in today.
It’s a cliché but it’s true: change begins from within. As individuals we have little say in defining public policy. But we can establish and abide by personal guidelines that reflect the spirit of the Pono Prism. We can choose to spend our money at quality, local businesses rather than businesses that send profits off our island. We can choose to make smart decisions on an individual level–beginning with the choice not to put all our eggs in the tourism basket. We can choose to give opportunities to quality people in our communities in need of work. And we can gear our activities both as individuals and collectively, toward preserving the sense of place that brings value to our communities.
For more information on Peter Apo and the great work he does, check out his site at www.peterapocompany.com
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009