Kauaʻi strives to balance progress with preservation, isolation with integration. On one hand you have community and local interests that aim to protect local culture and the environment, and build a brighter future for the island's children. On the other hand, mandates, social trends and politics infiltrate their way from mainland USA. In an island this isolated, it's a game of imports and exports. And, as far as current trends indicate, Kauaʻi continues to find balance in an unbalanced world.
Economy, Politics & Community
There's a love-hate relationship on the island with tourism. About a third of the island's economic output comes from visitation, and around a quarter of the population works in the industry. On any given day, the island's 71,000 some-odd residents work, play and jostle for position with over 24,000 visitors. In case you're counting, that's an us-versus-them ratio of three to one.
More tourism means more crowded roads and less affordable housing. It means greater energy usage and strains on land use. More tourism also means jobs and money for better schools, community programs and land protection initiatives.
As goes the tourism industry, so goes Kauaʻi's pocketbook. After the economic shocks of the 2008 global recession gave the island a full body slam, things are definitely picking up. In 2016 the hotel occupancy rate hit the 74% mark, the highest since 2008. Offset more vacation rentals and times shares, and you see a pretty healthy picture, with projections pointing toward continued slow growth.
There are several large construction works moving forward to make room for more visitors, including most notably the Timbers Resort redevelopment of the former Kauaʻi Lagoons site, and redevelopment of the Coco Palms in Wailua.
Many locals say the rise in tourist housing has made it harder and harder to afford to live here. Homelessness on Kauaʻi and across the Hawaiian Islands has grown substantially in recent years, with around 400 homeless people on Kauaʻi, a 30% jump from a year before.
Kauaʻi soundly backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US National Election for President – and the state generally votes democrat, save for national elections in 1972 and 1984. In case you were living under a rock, Clinton did not gain the presidency.
US President Donald Trump won the office with a promise to remove US commitments to UN climate change initiatives and 'cancel' the Paris Climate Agreements.
A 2014 study on 'Climate Change Impacts on Hawaii' commissioned by the Hawaii Tourism Authority underlines that sea level rise could cost the state an estimated $661 million per year in lost hotel revenue, with a yearly price tag topping $2 billion.
Other environmental impacts from climate change include high temperatures that could stress native plants and animals, decreased trade winds that could interrupt rainfall patterns and create periods of drought, heavy rain and floods, and warmer oceans that could trigger coral bleaching and marine migration.
A lack of high-performing schools, some chronic recidivism related to methamphetamine use (known locally as ice), environmental issues, beach shutdowns, historic preservation, traffic jams, military drills at Barking Sands, who's-seeing-who and today's surf report round out the menu of talking points for most 'talk story' sessions at the local coffee shop or bentō joint.
In the end, Kauaʻi is so far away – and so purposefully removed – that it tends to transcend politics. Life is about enjoying the sunrise and sunset, catching good waves and being with family. Life is good.
Community is what almost all island residents care most about. Under the leadership of Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr, Kauaʻi County is working toward achieving the ambitious goals set by the 'Holo Holo 2020' program, which aims to 'grow Kauaʻi responsibly.'
Tangibly, the high-flying improvement agenda involves more than three dozen separate community projects, ranging from the mundane, but very necessary – repaving roads, expanding bus service, upgrading local parks etc – to the forward-thinking and inspiring, for example, working to increase Native Hawaiian stewardship of the island's important cultural sites and building the county's first 'green' affordable housing.
Another global trend that has found its way to Kauaʻi’s shores is the sustainability movement. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Kauaʻi has rediscovered its sustainable roots, as ancient Hawaiians, who weren’t even aware of the profit motive, were inherently green.
The first area of interest here is sustainable agriculture. There is a major movement on Kauaʻi toward becoming self-sufficient in food production. And why not? We are talking about an island with hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile fields, and relatively few people. Consequently, imported food is increasingly viewed like fossil fuels – necessary at the present moment, but definitely to be avoided in the future.
Genetic engineering of crops and pesticide use are hot button issues. There's a whole heaping lot of genetic modifying going on here. A 2013 Kauaʻi ordinance approved by local voters created buffer zones and pesticide notifications for agriculture, while on the Big Island and Maui, genetically engineered tests were banned. The issue went up to the US Court of Appeals in November 2016, with the court striking down the local bans. Organizers may appeal or seek legislative action to reinstate the county-led initiatives.
Agriculture, homeless populations, climate change and other factors are also affecting the quality of Hawaii's signature resource, it's waters. In 2016 Mahaʻulepu Beach access was closed by state officials because of high bacteria levels. The beach area is now reopened, but watch for signs here and elsewhere on the island.
Another key area of interest is renewable energy. In the past Kauaʻi has had a surprising deficit in this area, as evidenced by the many gas-guzzling pick-ups prowling island highways. Spurred by the statewide Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, Kauaʻi has become a leader in solar power and is making progress with hydropower, the latter targeting island rivers. The goals is to reduce energy use by 30% and fossil fuel use by 50% by 2023. It's a bold goal, but with numerous solar and hydro plants coming on line, it may be achievable.
Best on Film
The Descendants (2011) Contemporary island life, with all of its heartaches and blessings.
From Here to Eternity (1953) Classic WWII-era drama leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack.
The North Shore (1987) Glorious cheesy and highly quotable, this movie is bitchin! 'Yeah right barney, bitchin!'
50 First Dates (2004) Silly rom-com shot on gorgeous Windward Oʻahu beaches.
Blue Hawaii (1961) Romp poolside with a ukulele-playing Elvis during Hawaii's tiki-tacky tourism boom.
Best in Print
Kauaʻi Tales (Frederick B Wichman; 1985) Recounts 18 legends of Kauaʻi.
Kauaʻi: The Separate Kingdom (Edward Joesting; 1988) Strong historic storytelling.
The Story of Koloa (Donald Donohugh; 2001) Localized account of plantation life in Koloa.
Shark Dialogues (Kiana Davenport; 1994) Multigenerational family saga, stretching from ancient times to the plantation era.
Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (Lois-Ann Yamanaka; 1996) Novel about growing up local and speaking Hawaiian pidgin.
Hotel Honolulu (Paul Theroux; 2001) Satirical tale about a washed-up writer managing a Waikiki hotel.
Kauai Surfrider (https://kauai.surfrider.org) Insights on the state of Kauaʻi's waters and the chance to volunteer with local riders to clean up beaches.
The Garden Island (www.thegardenisland.com) Pick up a copy or read online for details on events and local politics.
Stop Poisoning Paradise (www.stoppoisoningparadise.org) Want to join the anti-GMO movement or just learn more about it? This website has got you covered.
County of Kauaʻi (www.kauai.gov/HoloHolo2020) Explore the progress of the HoloHolo 2020 initiative; HoloHolo roughly translates to Joy Riding.