Can we really be ready to host this internationally acclaimed conference by November 2011 if we only have a couple of Four or Five Star Hotels? What about the first impression a prime minister might get sitting in our Wiki Wiki buses at Honolulu International Airport? And will the drive from the airport be world class with the homeless in sight along the route? What about the numerous pot holes in our roads, and the inability of press officers to get wi-fi in their limousines? You get the picture, and you may even wonder how Honolulu got picked as the host city in the first place.
Being the birthplace of President Barack Obama may have been one factor, but it certainly wasn’t because of our hotels, or smoothly paved streets, airport, our Internet accessibility. So what do we have going for us that will cause Hawaii to rise to the occasion and show the rest of the world that we are ready for prime time as a business, vacation, and serious safe and secure diplomatic destination?
To be sure, between now and November 2011 we should be busy giving Honolulu a face lift and putting on our Sunday-best for the rest of the world to see, but I don’t believe that is where the key to success of APEC lies. No matter how hard we try in the ensuing 18 months, I don’t believe we will ever be as attractive as the new hotels and roadways of Shanghai, the downtown area of the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, or even the close to the ease of transportation in Singapore.
In short, we will never have a Changgi-class airport (arguably the best in the world in Singapore) or remodel ourselves with the sophistication of the Hong Kongs of the world, but we can be the showcase of first class and world-class multi-ethnic interpersonal cultural refinement still unknown to many parts of the world.
Having visited over 40 international airports I know first hand that newness and shiny-hi-tech is not where airport good impressions are at. While part of the diplomatic corps as a Peace Corps Country Director and a United Nations staffer, it was clearly how one is received and processed at the airport that is more important than the airport itself.
I believe the key to our success as a city with APEC is our soft-power and the unlimited reserve of aloha, not the sun, surf, sand and sea – it’s the spirit that will make the difference, and we are the best people in the world to express it.
APEC is an opportunity to show who we are and what we really believe in. What I am talking about is a charm offensive so big that it will be practiced by everyone in Hawaii on such a scale that even residents will be surprised. It can be waged at our APEC guests from the minute they set foot in the airport, to their ride and reception at a hotel, to being accompanying to their conferences, and introduced to our way of life with aloha beyond recognition. The late Dr. George Kanahele’s training on practicing Hawaiian values should be revived for us all.
Of course we should shine and renovate (and probably junk or replace our Wiki Wiki buses), but it is the aloha charm offensive that will be our strength and will carry the day for the week-long APEC meetings.
One final note about the non-primary importance of infrastructure: the red carpet is about the person walking on it and how they are treated – not about the floor it is lying on.
I think Hawaii will do just fine if we do what we do best and do it seriously for APEC’s 10,000-15,000 guests, greeting them with a hug, a lei, a personal escort from the plane to their hotels where the same treatment repeats itself over and over again until they are back at the airport saying goodbye. We can all rise to the occasion to showcase our first class and world-class multi-ethnic interpersonal softpower, called aloha. This time we have to go beyond making it just a touristy thing, but be the genuine people of the islands who really love the rest of the world and will be able to show it when we walk onto the world stage in November 2011.
(Rep. Gene Ward is a member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and spent many years in the United Nations as well as the Peace Corps in overseas posts.)