This article is part of Mochi’s Winter 2021 issue, celebrating Cultural Capital. In this issue, we highlight ways that we, as Asian Americans, have embraced our identities and culture, and ways that our culture has been appropriated by others. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
Remote work is no longer new. Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies with the ability to do so have had employees working remotely from home to keep infection rates low. Many believe remote work is here to stay and brings changes such as new flexibility to work life. A lingering question is what effect it will have on communities as more people move and work from any location they desire.
One popular location people have been flocking to is the 50th state in the Union: Hawai’i. With its warmer climate, beautiful beaches, and an array of outdoor activities, Hawai’i has always been an iconic travel destination and is now an ideal place for digital workers to ride out the pandemic.
Although there are no statistics yet on how many visitors are remote workers relocating temporarily to Hawai’i, since Aug. 2020, the average daily number of new residents moving to Hawai’i increased from about 150 to 181, according to voluntary survey data collected by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority. Some of these remote workers are former residents who originally moved from Hawai’i to the U.S. mainland for more opportunities, a common trend in Hawai’i. On the other hand, there are the newcomers, some who are first-time visitors and others who previously vacationed there.
Is Remote Work a Solution or a Problem for Hawai’i’s Economy?
There are mixed feelings among locals about remote work and the recent influx of visitors. Some people, including the state government, see this as an opportunity. Former residents can return home and afford to live there with their mainland paycheck. The increase in visitors could also help with Hawai’i’s “brain drain” problem, describing the migration to the mainland to escape economic difficulties brought by the pandemic. Locals in favor of the influx are hopeful the population will balance out, and the economy could recover.
On the other side are residents who are concerned about the effects of remote work. According to surveys conducted by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, positive sentiment toward increased tourism has been declining. Their concerns include overcrowding, traffic problems, and environmental damage. Adding digital workers to the mix may make things worse.
It’s not a surprise that the influx of people has created a noticeable shift in the local housing market, making it even harder for locals to purchase homes. The demand for real estate is skyrocketing, as more real estate agents and their overseas clients engage in price wars to secure homes, sometimes even before inspecting the places themselves. Some locals also express a fear of being replaced by newcomers with their ability to work remotely. Many rural homes and local businesses still lack broadband access, making them ill-equipped for remote jobs.
Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) Director Mike McCartney says, “the state must strike a balance between recruiting new digital workers to move to Hawai’i and matching current residents with online employment.”
A Small Bandage to A Bigger Issue
Certain issues still remain, no matter how promising the economic contributions of remote work seem. The cost of living in Hawai’i still remains high, and remote work does not guarantee a sufficient salary.
Residents also deal with a Catch-22. They’re tired of the onslaught of tourists but still depend on them for employment. As Hawai’i’s biggest source of private capital at $18 billion, tourism-related industries experienced a 33% job loss when the state shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic. Tourism-related industries are still recovering, despite the influx of digital workers and the return of tourists, so locals continue to move to the U.S. mainland for better employment opportunities.
The state population has continuously declined for the past three years; the influx of digital workers will still probably be outnumbered by the number of residents leaving. A 2020 report from the University of Hawai’i Economic Research Organization (UHERO) projects that at least 30,000 residents will relocate to the mainland due to the pandemic. A declining population leads to further economic decline in a cyclical nature, meaning Hawai’i will continue to be a hard place to live in.
Unfortunately, the state’s focus on recruiting new digital workers also reminds some of Hawai’i’s history of “outsiders exploiting the Hawai’i lifestyle with little regard for the consequences.” Exploitation of Hawai’i dates back even further to its original colonial days when James Cooke set foot on Hawai’i in 1778. The legacy continues to affect Native Hawaiians in the form of high incarceration rates, higher rates of unemployment, and lower rates of educational advancement. At least 35.3% of Native Hawaiians are employed by tourism-related industries, which have suffered a huge blow. The Native Hawaiian population also continues to be heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
If the exploitation of native people, disregard for local people, and focus on newcomers continues, what will that mean for Hawai’i and its people, culture, and future?
Attracting a Different Type of Visitor and Resident: Project Movers and Shakas
Perhaps a part of the overall strategy is to attract digital workers that not only want to stay in Hawai’i but also want to learn and give back in a valuable way. That is exactly what a recent cohort project partially state-funded by the DBEDT hopes to bring. The cohort, Movers and Shakas, sponsors 50 digital nomads per cohort to work in Hawai’i for at least 30 days while meeting, volunteering, and working with local communities.
Movers and Shakas Director Nicole Lim shares how they use a highly selective process to “attract a more socially responsible visitor who shares Hawaiʻi’s values, actively contributes to our community, and desires a more authentic local experience.”
A good portion of the cohort’s members are former residents who are using the cohort to test moving back to Hawai’i. This year, the cohort includes local residents, which is a potential way to retain local talent and prevent them from moving in the first place.
The program highlights unique volunteer and educational experiences to create a “two-way sharing of knowledge, ideas, and culture.” Cohort members work on team projects with local nonprofits and start-ups, such as the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and Native Hawaiian Chambers of Commerce, to create real impact.
Lim believes that Hawai’i’s current cultural landscape includes not only its melding of Native Hawaiian, Asian, and Western influences, but also the shared values of “humility, kindness, stewardship for natural resources, a commitment to community, and respect for everyone.”
“Preserving culture starts with education around the historical and current cultural context,” says Lim. “Our programming includes having deep conversations with those in the community who are actively working to perpetuate Native Hawaiian values, a sense of place, and culture.”
This, combined with visiting special places to care for the land, is how Movers and Shakas hopes to continue preserving Hawai’i’s culture as they foster the incoming of digital workers.
While most out-of-state cohort members returned to their original locations, the community impact and relationships continue beyond their residency. One cohort member, Charlie Salas, returned to Washington D.C., where he is an engineering manager for a cyber security company. He set up a virtual paid internship program to continue to provide opportunities for the local students he met while volunteering at Waipahu High School.
These are the ways Movers and Shakas hopes to take advantage of the mobility remote work offers in order to attract former residents, integrate and retain local talent, and foster relationships that will invest back into Hawai’i’s economy and communities.
The local community will likely see the overall results of programs like Movers and Shakas in a couple of years. Meanwhile, there are other neighboring solutions underway. The DBEDT has partnered with three remote work solution providers to help provide current residents with better resources, which is a promising step in the right direction. The state is also planning to increase the islands’ broadband access infrastructure so Native Hawaiian communities and others across Hawai’i can have better internet access for work. While this is a hefty endeavor, it will be worth it to equalize the opportunity for remote work.
Similar to the cohorts of Movers and Shakas, tourists can give back to the community during their short stay by volunteering with organizations that work to preserve the land and culture of the islands. Sites such as Gohawaii.com, developed by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, provide a list of volunteer opportunities on different islands. This “regenerative tourism model” is hoping to shift tourism culture so the benefits will eventually outweigh the costs.
While remote work indeed shows potential for bringing positive change to Hawai’i, echoing Lim, it is ultimately the combined efforts from programs like Movers and Shakas, state planning, community organizations, and individuals that together will help create a more “innovative, resilient, and sustainable Hawai’i.”
Cover photo credit: Movers and Shakas
Last modified: February 20, 2022