Pacific Business News set out to see how Waikiki is faring more than three years since the start of the pandemic, now that visitor arrivals and spending are nearing or exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

Robert Finley, chair of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board No. 9, has lived in Waikiki since the mid-1960s.

In the early days of the pandemic, Waikiki was “very quiet,” he said.

“Pretty much nothing happened. Traffic was nonexistent. People were pretty much locked in their homes, only going out for food and whatever they had to go out for. It actually created a situation that, when it was over, we started getting noise complaints because it had been so quiet for the residents,” he said, adding that over the past three years, the neighborhood lost thousands of residents who were working in the visitor industry.

“It had been a thing we saw for years and years, where college-age students would come to Waikiki to basically work industry jobs and party after work, and they all couldn’t afford to live here because nothing was open. So they returned to wherever they came from.”

Waikiki today is a lot slower than it was in 2019, Finley said, noting, the neighborhood has not yet recovered pre-pandemic levels of visitors from Canada and Japan.

“A lot of the hotels are running [occupancy rates] in the high 90s, and people who live in Waikiki that work there are all back on the job,” he said. “But other hotels that specialize in the Japanese market are not running very full and they’re not bringing their employees back because there’s no sense having 50 extra maids when you don’t have a room to clean, which is bad [for] the people who live here in Waikiki and work in the hotels.”

Overall, Finley said the visitor industry is picking up slowly, but it’s “not where it was.”

“I think since Covid, we’ve seen it definitely come back,” said Trevor Abarzua, president and executive director of the Waikiki Business Improvement District Association, a nonprofit organization formed in 2000.

According to the organization’s website, WBIDA is dedicated to making Waikiki “a great place in which to invest, work, live and play,” and works “in partnership with business and government to develop and implement programs that strengthen the physical and economic vitality and help maintain its position as a world-class resort destination.”

“Visitors are up. We’re not quite to pre-pandemic levels yet, but we definitely are trending that way,” Abarzua said. “We’re at a great point in terms of visitors, in terms of people coming in.”

But homelessness and crime increased when things began opening up again, he said.

“So there was definitely an emphasis from a community standpoint, from a resident standpoint, but also from an economy standpoint of ‘we need to do something about this,’” Abarzua said. “We need to clean it up because it could affect the economy.”

The Safe and Sound program – an initiative that includes involvement from WBIDA, Honolulu Police Department, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Mayor’s Office, Waikiki Improvement Association, Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association and the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii – launched in September 2022.

“The emphasis was on keeping Waikiki clean and safe, again, for the residents, for the people [who] are working in Waikiki, the visitors [who] are visiting here, because I think one of the biggest strengths of Hawaii as a tourist destination but also Waikiki is that people do feel safe when they come here.”

Also as part of the Safe and Sound program, habitual crime offers could be ordered to stay out of the Waikiki geographic area. Abarzua said that has been a significant part of reducing crime in the neighborhood.

According to District 6 crime statistics – which come from HPD and were provided by WBIDA – in the first quarter of 2023, following the launch of Safe and Sound, compared to the first quarter of 2022:

  • Assaults declined 15% (97 compared to 114)
  • Burglaries declined 25% (24 compared to 32)
  • Drug and alcohol violations declined 82% (36 compared to 202)
  • Criminal property damage declined 41% (89 compared to 151)
  • Robberies declined 64% (9 compared to 25)
  • Theft declined 16% (501 compared to 600)
  • Car break-ins declined 32% (61 compared to 90)
  • Total calls for service declined 10% (11,010 compared to 12,267).

According to a May homeless count report for WBIDA prepared by a team from the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, the number of homeless individuals in Waikiki declined 43% in May 2023 compared to September 2022 – 251 were observed in September 2022 compared to 143 in May 2023.

“Statistically speaking, Safe and Sound appears to be working, and all the key metrics as far as crime appear to be down,” Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi told PBN. “… We still have, though, very persistent, chronic criminal types that tend to congregate in Waikiki, who have been arrested multiple times, released for various misdemeanor offenses, many of whom have been given geographic restrictions. They violate those. It’s that element right now that I’m still very much concerned about because, quite honestly, they tend to make people very uncomfortable because they have a tendency to be drunk, act in lewd ways, have been responsible for shoplifting at our stores and different things of that nature.”

Blangiardi, though, said he’s otherwise encouraged by the effectiveness of the Safe and Sound program, noting, too, there’s now probably more police presence in Waikiki than ever before at the city’s request, and the city also has hired a private security task force to augment security from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. seven days a week “to help ensure that our local residents, as well as our visitors, feel safe.”

But there’s still work to do with Safe and Sound, Abarzua said, “and more on the ‘sound’ part.’” That means working to address the social service and mental health needs of the chronically homeless or houseless populations.

“We’re trying to put resources to that,” Abarzua said, noting that WBIDA, through a grant from the City and County of Honolulu and the Kosasa Foundation, will soon hire a Safe and Sound coordinator, “with an emphasis on mental health and an emphasis on helping people [who] are homeless in the community.”

WBID already has outreach coordinators, staffed under WBIDA’s Aloha Ambassadors, who work to build relationships with the houseless in Waikiki and ensure those individuals know about the services and resources available, he said. But the new coordinator position will include street-based work, as well as “taking in this data that we have, analyzing the data and coming up with sort of policy solutions so that we can get more help to the people [who] need it on the streets of Waikiki.”

WBID also has 60 safety and custodial Aloha Ambassadors throughout the district, which are paid positions.

By: Stephanie Salmons – Pacific Business News