He knows such ideas won’t be an easy sell among his constituents, however. Honolulu’s community boards have proven themselves vocal and well-organized. In late 2019, a group of residents in neighborhoods directly inland of Waikiki successfully fought an Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to address what is effectively Waikiki’s third source of potential flooding. Along with an advancing shoreline and groundwater inundation, a possible 100-year storm in the upland valleys would send water rushing into Waikiki, causing an overtopping of the Ala Wai Canal. The Army Corps plan, which had been in the works for nearly two decades, faced opposition because it lacked community input and included large detention basins in residential neighborhoods and 4-foot, view-spoiling wall extensions along the canal.
“People generally don’t like change,” says Katherine Hensky, a member of the Waikiki community board. “The attitude of a lot of people is: ‘Nothing is going to happen to me, and if it does, I’ll deal with it then.’”
Perhaps the biggest player in the politics of climate adaptation in Waikiki, which represents 8 percent of the state’s economy, is its tourism industry. Its contribution came into particularly sharp relief during the early days of the Covid pandemic when tourists disappeared and Hawaii’s unemployment rate surged to almost 30 percent, among the worst in the nation. Hotel owners and operators, for the most part, have not spoken publicly about sea level rise in Waikiki, and nearly every one of the nine companies I contacted for this article declined to comment. The real estate company Park Hotels & Resorts recently had an extensive report completed about how an advancing shoreline will affect its large, oceanfront Hilton Hawaiian Village property, but Moriwaki says the company has opted not to share it with her. (A Hilton representative said the hotel is “committed to operating and growing sustainably.”)
If recent events are any guide, the industry’s appetite for making — and paying for — decisive change might not be particularly high. Those defunct and dangling stairs at the Sheraton and the walkway leading to them have been blocked with an unsightly “Closed” sign for more than five years because of a stalemate over who should be responsible for repairs, Eversole says. The Sheraton, which owns the walkway, and the state, which has an agreement for public use of it, remain at loggerheads about both the funds and the assumption of liability in the event of a lawsuit. The walkway closed in 2016 after a visitor broke both her ankles (then sued) while trying to negotiate the makeshift sandbags placed between the sand and stairs. Now, anyone wanting to traverse the beach has to wind around the Sheraton’s infinity pool to bypass that section of the walkway.
Next door, the upscale Halekulani hotel has its own walkway problems. Although functional, the path leading across the beach, toward the Hilton Hawaiian Village, involves a circuitous walk around and across a mini-beach and then, at the end of the walkway, the navigation of a precipitous drop. Over the summer, the erosion of sand caused pieces of the public-access sidewalk connected to the walkway to shear off. On my visit in December, I watched people of all ages and athletic abilities as they attempted to scramble over wet, sandy, steep-angled slabs of concrete on their journeys across the beach.
In an interview at an open-air dining area at the recently renovated hotel he runs, Halekulani Corporation Chief Operating Officer Peter Shaindlin said he views it as the state’s responsibility (or the city’s, in the case of the sidewalk) to fix the walkways because of the terms of a public use agreement signed with the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources in the 1960s. He also favors a comprehensive, multi-hotel solution, something Eversole says he is working on and which he hopes will be funded jointly by his employer, the Special Improvement District Association, and the state. “We don’t want to do anything that becomes a band-aid solution. We’re waiting to see what happens with the entire stretch,” Shaindlin says.
Although roughly half of the $5.8 million total cost of the recently completed Royal Hawaiian groin and beach widening projects that Eversole showed me came from hotels via the Special Improvement District Association, the state will likely need to step in as the leading contributor for future projects. Currently, the business association group collects just $1 million a year in assessments.
A longtime Waikiki real estate lawyer who didn’t want to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak about clients said he is concerned about an incompatibility between the interests of local community members, whose children and grandchildren will live on Oahu’s south shore for decades, and hotel owners, many of whom are short-term, mainland-based or international real estate or private equity firms. “These are people who are generally not going to hold the asset for more than 15 years, so they don’t need to necessarily think long-term,” he said. “My big concern is that one day the risk profile will become too high, and people will say, ‘I’m not going to invest in Waikiki anymore.’ When that happens, a lot of people will be left behind.”
Shaindlin says that the Halekulani Corporation, as an owner of multiple Waikiki properties for more than 30 years, is committed to the destination’s long-term vitality and interested in supporting innovative ideas. “For our guests, it’s already more about culture than sunbathing,” he says. “Some of them will actually call up the hotel and ask what we do with sustainability initiatives.”
In Stilgenbauer’s experience, support from the industry, though welcome, tends to be theoretical. She says when she meets with hotels, often on properties with critical infrastructure on lower levels and ground-floor lobbies bustling with shops and restaurants, there is little sense of urgency. “They say, ‘These nature-based solutions are fine, but not on our property,’” she says.
At some point in the not-so-distant future, these wait-and-see postures will no longer be viable. With the ocean advancing and the water Pinkham and Dillingham tamed a century ago now threatening to reclaim the landscape, Waters, the city council member, says he wants to see human ingenuity adapt Waikiki’s urban topography before nature does it first. Inevitably though, this will mean difficult and uncomfortable choices, especially for the tourism industry. “The hotels that don’t want to go along with the plan will just have to be dragged along,” he says, adding, “If we’re going to end up making hotels and the multinational corporations that own them angry, I’m OK with that.”