Hawaii can't survive on tourism alone. The tropical paradise is betting big on remote workers.

  • The pandemic decimated tourism in Hawaii, exposing the islands’ dangerous dependence on visitors.
  • A surge in working from home could give Hawaii a way to finally diversify its economy.
  • The state’s now attracting remote workers from the mainland, while helping locals land new jobs.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Back in September, Sandra Kwan left San Francisco dreaming of the perfect Hawaiian life. The past five months haven’t disappointed.

A senior program manager at LinkedIn, Kwan works 7 to 3 from her apartment, which overlooks Waikiki’s surf breaks. In the late afternoons, she catches a few waves or goes scuba-diving or just sits on the beach, a three-minute walk away.

Depending on the weekend, she dives with pods of dolphins and reef sharks or scrambles up the island’s rocky ridges for panoramic views of the coastline. None of this would’ve been possible before the pandemic, when she worked out of LinkedIn’s office in San Francisco.

Kwan’s pandemic move has been great for her, and yet it’s also one vision of a better future for Hawaii. With the surge in remote work, the state may have finally found what it’s been searching for: a way for people to live there without a career tied to tourism.

Local businesses and the government are now moving fast to capitalize on the sudden opening. The pandemic that ravaged Hawaii’s economy has exposed the dangers of its dependence on tourism. The number of visitors plunged by 99% last spring, prompting mass layoffs across hotels, restaurants, and airlines. At 9.3%, unemployment stands higher than in any other state in the country.

“To make the state less vulnerable to sudden and unexpected changes, we must diversify,” Gov. David Ige said in his address to the state legislature on January 25. “A post-COVID Hawaii cannot be a Hawaii as it used to be.” 

If it succeeds, Hawaii will end up with the resilient economy it’s struggled to shape for generations: In 2019, leisure and hospitality jobs accounted for 16 percent of employment on the islands, which was 1.6 times the concentration in the US. Any gains the state makes by supporting remote work will also offer lessons for the rest of the US as communities adapt to a labor market transformed by the coronavirus.

If it fails, Hawaii risks another economic catastrophe the next time the world stops going on vacation. 

Free flights to Hawaii

Hawaii’s push is already underway, and the first step has been a publicity blitz that got its start from a five-page Google doc.

After they arrived in Honolulu from San Francisco in May, Richard Matsui — who grew up on the islands — started jotting down some advice with his wife, Christine Guo. The couple had in mind their friends in the Bay Area who, like them, might also want to work in Hawaii while their offices were closed.

Their advice circulated widely, starting with the internal message boards of Google, Apple, and Facebook, whose employees shared it with friends. “This document kind of went viral,” Matsui said. “We ended up talking to dozens of people that were thinking of making the move.”

That caught the attention of local media outlets, and a number of business leaders in Honolulu said they wanted to help. Matsui and six others came together to form Movers and Shakas, a play on the local hand signal that’s also popular with surfers. With money that it raised from a few businesses and organizations, the group announced at the end of November that it would give away plane tickets to 50 remote workers who pledge to stay on Oahu for at least a month and volunteer with a community nonprofit. 

From all the media coverage the program received, the Movers and Shakas website crashed shortly after it launched. Its leaders have just finished selecting 50 winners from the almost 90,000 applications they received.

Helping locals land remote jobs

Although 99.9% of them weren’t chosen, those applications will tell Hawaii something vital. The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism is parsing the files to see what types of jobs applicants hold.

That information may hold clues for the remote work that the state’s residents could be trained for and apply for. Having only taken an early look so far, the department’s economic development coordinator, Scott Murakami, said he’s already surprised by what he’s found.

One item: The jobs held by Movers and Shakas applicants are in industries far more varied than technology, finance, insurance, and healthcare, even though earlier research suggested that those four industries were the main source of remote roles. 

“It’s one thing to have that literature available to us and something completely different to have that firsthand intelligence,” he said. (Murakami couldn’t offer more details about which additional industries stood out.)

A deeper analysis of the data will be especially useful for local job-training centers, which could better tailor their instruction to teach the skills that are in demand in the remote workforce.

The department has also signed two contracts with job-placement services that will aim to match 2,000 job-seekers with remote positions starting in April. And Ige, the governor, has directed his Department of Transportation to accelerate an existing pilot program to expand broadband access in rural areas.

$20,000 to move to Michigan

Elsewhere in the country, economic-development officials have been rethinking their plans. Some, like the mayor of Miami, are publicly courting venture capitalists fleeing Silicon Valley. Others are giving out cash.

Among them are Topeka, Kansas and northwest Arkansas. In the fall, each announced up to $10,000 for remote workers willing to move in, following programs that are ongoing in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Shoals, Alabama that launched before the pandemic.

When southwest Michigan offered as much as $20,000, more than a thousand people expressed their interest (23 households were accepted). Several organizers of these campaigns said that other cities have asked about the details, which suggest more regions could follow.

“We saw the opportunity. We saw that people now have the ability to have that big-city career and small-town life,” said Christina Frank, vice president of external affairs at Cornerstone Alliance, a nonprofit that’s running the “Move to Michigan” campaign in Berrien County.

“We did this fast and furious so that we could put southwest Michigan on the map. Maybe for the first time, we were able to position ourselves in a light where people now know that we’re a very viable option to come and to move and to set down roots, and raise families and have careers.”

Some of these programs have faced resistance in their communities. The backlash in Hawaii has been pronounced.

Murakami, the economic-development coordinator, was quick to emphasize that his department has been focusing its taxpayer money on serving existing residents: The government pitched in a small amount of money for Movers and Shakas to help with the program’s data collection, but most of the initiative’s costs have been shouldered by local businesses (the programs in Tulsa; Arkansas; and Michigan are funded by private entities such as foundations, too).

And yet even without a cash subsidy or free flight, droves of people are flocking to Hawaii on their own. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, 5,800 people have flown to the state as new residents every month, on average, since September, though it’s unclear how many of them are remote workers. The category includes military families.

Among them are Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who told employees in December that he moved to the remote island of Lanai, 98% of which he’s owned since 2012. Ellison reportedly signed off his email with “Mahalo, Larry.”

Many more appear to be buying up multimillion-dollar homes on other islands, fueling concern that the influx is making housing even less affordable in the state than it already was. The typical home in Honolulu was valued at $734,325 in December, an increase of 3.6% from a year earlier, according to Zillow.

Some locals worry that these newcomers are just another kind of tourist, exploiting the natural beauty of the islands while it’s convenient for them, only to leave postpandemic without contributing to the community’s long-term future. 

Given Hawaii’s history — a once sovereign kingdom that let in American missionaries, whose influence served to strip the native people of their traditions and their land, eventually culminating in those missionaries’ descendants overthrowing the queen to make way for US annexation — others worry about a more permanent displacement.

Today, nearly as many Native Hawaiians live on the mainland as they do in Hawaii. Many have left because of the high cost of living, and more are considering leaving to pursue better job opportunities.  

The uncertain future of remote work 

Whether Hawaii’s latest newcomers will stay will largely depend on their employers.

Studies show that just over a third of the US labor force has been working from home during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get called back into the office once it’s safe to do so. With vaccines still unavailable to most Americans, many companies have yet to announce permanent policies.

One company that has is Salesforce. In a blog post on Tuesday declaring that “the 9-to-5 workday is dead,” president and chief people officer Brent Hyder wrote that employees will have the option to work remotely full time. But most will still report to the office part of the week, he said, adding that few will work out of the office all week. 

A survey from last May offers some clues on to how widespread the Salesforce model may become. Businesses said they expected 10% of their staff to work from home full time after the pandemic, with an additional 17% who may juggle a more hybrid arrangement of working from home for part of the week. That’s up multiples from 2019, at 3% and 6%, respectively. 

Those results suggest that a year from now white-collar workers won’t have quite their current level of freedom to live wherever they want. Still, it would open up the possibility for millions more Americans to live in a suburb farther from a big-city hub, for those who will only need to commute a day or two per week.

It would even open up the possibility for some who won’t need to commute at all (Honolulu is a 5-hour flight from San Francisco) to settle in a place as far flung as Hawaii, as long as they can stand the difference in time-zones: Working during business hours on the West Coast is probably doable, but adjusting to New York hours might prove difficult. 

Matsui, who helped start Movers and Shakas, is among the lucky few who already have that permanent freedom.

He’s the CEO of kWh Analytics, a solar-energy-data startup with about 25 employees, and he just received his board’s approval to take the business remote beyond the pandemic. His wife recently found a job as an investor in Honolulu, which means the two of them can now stay and raise their 1-year-old daughter near Matsui’s parents.

“I was the person who was most adamant about having everyone in the office, believing that the magic of being together in an office in Silicon Valley is hard to replicate,” Matsui said.

LinkedIn’s Kwan, though, is torn. On the one hand, she’s starting to feel more rooted in Hawaii, making friends through the Waikiki Dive Center where she completed her dive-master certification. She’s been volunteering with a local group that collects fishing hooks and bottles from the ocean, and is trying to find other ways for those new to Hawaii like her to give back. She doesn’t want to be just another tourist.

On the other hand, she misses her coworkers. “I would have intense FOMO if I didn’t go back to the office in San Francisco,” she said.

As she awaits more details from her employer, one factor might tip the scales. “I would love to start a LinkedIn Honolulu office,” she said. She knows of at least nine colleagues in Hawaii.

Matsui is rooting for people like Kwan to stay. It’s always been his goal for Movers and Shakas, that professionals with a variety of skills would come intending to stay for a few weeks and love Hawaii so much they’d end up moving permanently.

“For me, that’s the kernel of a new industry,” he said.

He hopes that would open up opportunities that didn’t exist when he was growing up. A graduate of Punahou School, a prestigious prep school in Honolulu that former President Barack Obama also attended, Matsui said he and many of his classmates always knew they would need to leave home to pursue their careers. Every year since 2011, Hawaii has lost more residents to the rest of the country than it’s gained.

Matsui’s father runs a pet shop, passed down from his grandfather, who started selling goldfish out of a wheelbarrow in Honolulu’s Chinatown after returning from World War II.

“Will that business outlast my generation? I don’t think so,” Matsui said. “A lot of the things that sustained us as a state are not going to sustain us in the next generation, if we’re not proactive in thinking about solving these problems ahead of time.”

Andy Kiersz and Taylor Borden contributed reporting.

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