Hawaii’s white sand beaches, towering volcanoes and relaxing tropical vistas attract millions of visitors annually from around the globe.
But the announcement of President Donald Trump’s second travel ban has stoked fears that the state’s main economic driver – tourism – could take a hit.
Although visitors from the affected countries are relatively few, Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin has warned of a “chilling effect” that could discourage international travel to the U.S. from all corners.
“There are already reports that due to these executive orders and travel bans, people are less inclined to travel to the United States,” he told reporters at a recent news conference.
Hawaii is suing over the revised ban, saying it goes against the state’s welcoming “aloha” spirit and could do long-term harm to tourism by creating a global perception that the U.S. is an exclusionary country.
It also contends the order will interfere with Hawaii’s commitment to diversity and nondiscrimination; will hurt Hawaii residents with family in the six predominantly Muslim countries named in the ban; and will hinder the University of Hawaii’s ability to recruit talent from those countries. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday morning.
“The legal issue here is whether an executive order that discriminates by national origin or religion results in any harm, major or minor, to a state,” Chin said in an emailed statement. “If any harm occurs – and we believe it does – the state of Hawaii has standing to sue on the grounds that the order is illegal and unconstitutional.”
Six other states – Washington, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon – have filed a separate lawsuit alleging the ban is unconstitutional and hurts states’ residents, businesses and educational institutions.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Hawaii’s lawsuit but filed a memo in court opposing it Monday. It rejected Hawaii’s claims about tourism and recruitment as speculation, and said the argument that the order forces Hawaii to tolerate a policy that’s antithetical to its spirit does not give the state standing to sue.
The agency also said the order does not discriminate based on religion because it applies to all individuals in the affected countries – Somalia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen – regardless of faith.
According to Hawaii’s lawsuit, more than 6,800 people from the Middle East and 2,000 from Africa visited the state in 2015. During the short time the first executive order was in place, the number of visitors to Hawaii from the Middle East fell from 348 in January 2016 to 278 in 2017.
“You never know when the other shoe will drop and it will be hard for you to get out of the country,” said Mufi Hannemann, the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association’s president and CEO. “It flies in the face of the spirit of aloha, a key reason people come to Hawaii.”
About 5,000 Muslims live in Hawaii, less than 1 percent of the state’s population.
Soufiane Bouharkat, a 40-year-old Hawaii cafe owner, was among dozens gathered at a Honolulu mosque Friday for prayers. He said many of his friends in Europe, where he grew up, are reluctant to visit the U.S.
“They’re just afraid they might be stopped or questioned, and that’s the last thing you want to be is questioned when you come on vacation,” Bouharkat said. “So it will definitely have an impact. As small as it is, it will still be an impact that’s negative.”
In 2016, Hawaii saw 8.9 million visitors who together spent $15.6 billion, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. On average, that’s about $1,750 per visitor.
The agency doesn’t track spending of visitors from the countries named in the travel ban because there are so few. Tourists from the Middle East and other parts of Africa made up less than 1 percent of all Hawaii visitors last year.
About two-thirds of Hawaii visitors come from elsewhere in the U.S., followed by 17 percent from Japan, 6 percent from Canada, 5 percent from the rest of Asia and 2 percent from Europe, according to 2015 state data.
“The Middle East doesn’t even factor in,” said Chuck Gee, dean emeritus at the University of Hawaii School of Travel Industry Management.
Travel bans related to outbreaks such as bird flu can have a devastating impact on tourism, but those related to security and safety typically don’t, Gee said.
“If they think the ban would make Hawaii safer, it could actually help us,” he said, noting the state is seen as a sound location, so “whenever there is trouble in the world, Hawaii tends to benefit.”
Business travelers booking conventions sometimes cancel travel for political reasons, but independent travelers are less likely to call off trips, Gee added.
Tourists strolling through Waikiki on a sunny afternoon had mixed opinions on the travel ban.
“The underlying problem is the Muslims coming in without them having been checked,” said Peter Broady of Manchester, England. “And it doesn’t have to be a Muslim – it can be anybody. Any religion, any faith. …They need to be checked. It’s only common sense.”
But a couple from Sydney, Australia, felt differently.
“It’s definitely not fair because there’s obviously a lot of innocent people who are caught up with it because of their ethnic backgrounds,” Michael Bills said.
Source: Associated Press