I RECALL a time a few years back, as I enjoyed an éclair and cup of coffee in Herman’s Bakery, two islanders at another table discussed tourists. One complained that because of them, prices had gone up, there was too much traffic and the beaches were always crowded with foreigners. His friend agreed, then said while that may be true, they all had jobs and at least there were roads to drive cars on. Their children attended good schools and they vacationed off-island once a year. None of that would be possible without all the revenue tourism brings into the island.
That’s the trouble with tourists, isn’t it? Some husbands, about to lose yet another argument with their wives, throw their hands up and say, “Women! You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them!” Have you ever felt that way about tourists? I have.
We are not alone. A recent piece in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, titled “Pandemic Gave Locals Taste of a Tourist-Free Hawaii,” shows that most Hawaiians would agree with us. One local woman rejoiced that instead of her usual journey of several hours to get to Walmart, she raced there in 35 minutes from her home on the North Shore of Oahu.
All across the Hawaiian islands, locals have taken back beaches, roads and places of interest from those meddling foreign tourists. One man who grew up on the western side of Oahu recalled how he grew up interacting with the sea turtles at the beach, but it had been many years because that particular beach had become a tourist favorite. Now he visits the turtles again.
Of course, the same man says that several family members have lost their jobs over the last few months. One was a taxi driver with no more passengers, another skippered a boat for scuba tourists. Still another worked at the same Walmart that locals now race to. With sales down so drastically, businesses everywhere are cutting labor.
Jamaica Osorio, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, has been vocal about her disdain for tourists. “We aren’t your hosts,” she said in a widely shared tweet. “Hawaii is still closed. Go home haole,” she wrote. Ouch.
With the second wave of Covid now hitting the islands, only 300 out of some 9,000 out-of-work members of a tourism labor union returned to their jobs when Hawaii welcomed back travelers recently, leading some to wonder whether tourism will be the lifeblood it once was.
This strikes home for me. Saipan has long relied on tourism for its prosperity. It was here before the garment industry, has remained after its demise, and promises to stay with us for a long time. In my view, this is good. Saipan is ready-made for a healthy tourism industry, with Chamorro and Carolinian heritage, a major Second World War draw, magnificent beaches and more, the island would waste a valuable resource if it turned its back on the tourists.
Do all those visiting Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and stateside Americans come with a downside? Of course they do. Every industry has a downside. For every iPhone sold, the giant lake of toxic sludge behind the Apple factory grows larger. Every bottle of water I drink reminds me that the amount of plastic in the ocean keeps growing. But we need water, we like iPhones and Saipan needs tourism just as surely as Hawaii does. So locals, enjoy the empty beaches while you have them. Some time next year, the tourists will be back, and when that happens, your cousin will get his job back.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for twenty years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.