Hawaii — Paradise Lost or Found?

I'm in Hawaii to cover the unique economic challenges facing the Aloha State. I'm also here to moderate the state's CFA annual forecast dinner.

I know, somebody's gotta do it. Just remember, I was reporting on bison meatin -10 temps in Wyoming last month with snow blowing in my face, ok?


By the way — you're not gonna believe this — on the flight over, the very first video United played was an episode of "Two and a Half Men". It ends with Charlie Sheen's character in an orange jail jumpsuit, the kind you wear to pick up roadside trash. And he was drinking.

I looked around the plane. Did anyone else find this odd?

Not really. People were laughing — at the show, not the circumstances. They loved Charlie the actor. Charlie the warlock didn't matter. Seriously?

Well, remember, they were on a plane TO HAWAII.


Speaking of Hawaii...

If you think you're paying more for gasoline, fuggidaboudit. Hawaiians pay more than any other Americans. They've been forking over $4 a gallon in many places for some time now. That's because 90 percent of the state's transportation and energy needs depend on oil, and pretty much all of it has to be shipped in. Hawaii spends $7 billion a year on oil, or $5,400 per Hawaiian.

The state is making major investments in alternative energy — wind, solar, algae. But when the number one industry is tourism, one has to be careful not to ruin the view with wind farms and solar arrays. Also, most of Hawaii's energy needs are on Oahu, while most of the wind is on smaller islands. Residents on Lana'i, for example, aren't keen to sacrifice land and wildlife to windmills in order to keep the lights on in Waikiki. This week I will meet with two companies —Sopogy, a solar power enterprise which is planning an IPO, and First Wind, which withdrew its IPO last fall when it became clear it wouldn't raise as much as it wanted. Both are invested heavily in helping Hawaii get off oil.

I will also be doing interviews on tourism and real estate, and I'm slated to meet with Hawaii's new Governor, Neil Abercrombie.

The stories will roll out on CNBC in the next few weeks, but in my research, here are some interesting economic facts about Hawaii:

  1. Tourism is up, making a huge jump in January as blizzards hit the mainland and drug wars in Mexico make that a less appealing destination. But Hawaii tourism officials believe it'll take three more years to make up for losses in the recession. The average hotel room rates are down as much as 20 percent from the peak, but occupancy has returned "to more normal levels," according to Outrigger President David Carey.
  2. Some of the biggest jumps in tourism are visitors from Oregon and Washington. Internationally, visitors from Canada are up double digits, but only a fraction of China's tourists come here—74,000 out of 52 million Chinese leaving the People's Republic to go on vacation.
  3. Show biz production like the new CBS "Hawaii 5-0" brought in a record $400 million last year. And every time a network newscast shows the President eating ice cream on vacation here wearing a polo shirt—someone goes online to book a trip (including those still determined to prove he wasn't born here).
  4. Hawaii's GDP is projected to grow 2 percent his year, about half the 3.5 to 4 percent the Federal Reserve expects for the entire U.S. Similarly, Hawaii's GDP grew 1.4 percent last year, also half the latest estimate for the nation as a whole.
  5. Moody's says Hawaii has the highest debt burden in the nation, as a percentage of state GDP. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser says, "Total debt issuance and unfunded pension liabilities amount to 16.2 percent of state GDP," which equals nearly $8,000 "for every man, woman and child." The Governor, a Democrat, has been a supporter of public employees, but he's calling for everyone to "give a little" to close a projected $844 million deficit over the next two years.

On the other hand, check this out. According to Moody's, there are only two office markets in the country where the vacancy rates are below 10 percent: New York...and Honolulu.


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