February 17, 2012 10:03 pm

Wake up calls for Waikiki

Hawaii is witnessing a drop in US visitors while arrivals from other countries around the Pacific are on the up

The Fast Lane took a sharp curve into the Pacific last week and touched down in Honolulu for what’s become an annual midwinter warm-up at the Halekulani beach resort. After a short stop in Singapore, a shorter stop in frigid Seoul, a daytrip to Fukuoka and a couple of days in Tokyo, Honolulu’s trade winds and temperature have been perfect for plotting and planning.

Two weeks ago this column touched on the importance of building a sense of place around transport projects and the Hawaiian capital’s plans for a new light rail network. Unfortunately the local weekend paper ran a cover story that polled residents on their support for the scheme and found that it has swung into negative territory. With the issue set to become the centrepiece of the upcoming mayoral race, it’s alarming news for a city that needs a better story than a super-strong yen and more direct flights to Asia.

One would have expected last year’s Apec summit to focus, if not fix, the state’s gaze west across the Pacific but there’s still a jarring lack of awareness about the demands of Asia-Pacific travellers. As the Pentagon cuts back and ships based at Pearl Harbor are tagged for decommissioning, tourism increasingly becomes the state’s only card.

Hawaii is witnessing a drop in US visitors while arrivals from other countries around the Pacific are on the up. Australians, with their booming upper-middle class, have made a huge jump. Canadians, with their strong dollar, have muscled on to loungers. And at many top properties Japanese account for more than 60 per cent of guests. With this shift in traffic comes a radically different set of tastes, habits and opportunities.

From my beach-front perch, there’s a wealthy Filipino family who want Japanese food for lunch and are wondering whether Nobu can open its kitchen, there’s a murmur from some Aussies about the lack of good coffee on an island that grows the stuff and there’s a consensus that American-style (heavily unionised) service doesn’t have much of a role in the Pacific century.

The Obama administration might be working hard to encourage tourism but it can save its efforts if operators don’t upgrade their airports, properties and service levels.

There’s a slightly lazy tendency to blame poor service on “island life”. While there is some truth in this, Hawaii won’t have much of a future unless it sets a hospitality standard that isn’t about staff looking out for themselves rather than their employers and guests.

When newlyweds from Yokohama can just as easily honeymoon in Phuket, and Aussies can go to Huka’s new-ish retreat in Fiji, pupu platters and plate lunches hold little appeal. Honolulu has many delights (I managed to find an exquisite Japanese-run Italian restaurant called Bernini, and at Morning Glass in the Manoa district even tracked down coffee to compete with the best the Kiwis can offer), but it’s make or break time. Hotels can’t be renovated overnight, restaurateurs don’t drop everything in Melbourne just to set up a café in Waikiki, and, most importantly, you can’t engineer cultural change in a weekend.

Earlier this week, Honolulu’s mayor paid a visit to the Philippines to stimulate trade ties and sample the transit system. He might have added a visit to Singapore to see how one makes first and lasting impressions, visited Kyoto to capture sense of scale (much of Honolulu lacks any sense of intimacy – a result of roads that are too wide and buildings too low) and flown down to Sydney to encourage the city’s best chefs to open up shop (there needs to be a ban on ventures like the Cheesecake Factory, and zoning to promote more independent enterprises). On his return he might also consider:

1. Cleaning up the streets – part one. There’s simply too much rubbish around for a place that’s trying to sustain a tourism industry.

2. Cleaning up the streets – part two. The vagrants who wander around Waikiki need a place to go and there should be an effective programme to keep them from sleeping rough.

3. Green rooftops. With so much discussion about food miles there are plenty of warehouse rooftops that could be used for growing aubergines, tomatoes and hibiscus plants.

4. Privatise some beaches. This might involve some discussion with the state but the beaches need some love. Take a few cues from the Italians – just don’t privatise all of it.

5. Go west, young mayor – your benchmarks are Wellington, Sydney, Auckland, Melbourne and Fukuoka. They’re not on the US mainland.

6. Push ahead with your rail project. It just might need a rethink in terms of its visual impact.

7. Plant a few more trees.

8. Preserve your modernist architecture – this includes many of those lovely residences in and around Kahala.

9. More cycle lanes wouldn’t hurt, along with places to park them.

10. Swap time zones and be the place the world starts its day. It’s no fun being the last place things happen.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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