Maybe it’s the fact that it’s now commonplace to see multiple out-of-state license plates on Kaua‘i’s highways, where not long ago it was not an everyday occurrence. In a half hour driving between Kilauea and Princeville a few days ago, I saw five or them.
California, Washington and Oregon seem to be the most common, but they’re from everywhere, including Texas, Ohio and the Cherokee Nation.
Maybe it’s the fact that the Kaua‘i real-estate market is being heated to the scorching level, with prices shooting up as homes are snapped up by new arrivals. The median house price has now surpassed $1 million.
For good measure, a local moving-company estimator mentioned casually that a quarter to a third of his business right now is mainland people moving to the island without ever having seen the homes they have purchased.
Or maybe it’s the fact that Hanalei School has enrolled dozens of new students this academic year — seemingly the vast majority children of families that have moved to Kaua‘i quite recently, either to ride the pandemic out or as a new, permanent home.
Maybe it’s people who’ve had houses or condos here on Kaua‘i for many years, but have hunkered down long term to escape COVID-19 and brought their extended families with them.
And, finally, maybe it’s the fact that local small businesses are being driven to ruin. They are closing and the people who’ve operated them — some for decades — are moving go the mainland because Kaua‘i has become too expensive for them to survive.
On top of that, some older local residents with sons and daughters who are considering starting families have concluded that Kaua‘i is a bridge too far and that moving closer to the kids makes sense. Count my wife and me in that category. For some, like us, COVID-19 is a motivating factor, though in our case we’ve been thinking about moving closer to the kids for two or three years.
Most of these are only impressions for which documentation and hard numbers don’t exist. But I expect everyone on Kaua‘i has observed, or at least sensed, trends that are taking shape.
There are two things that may be happening — neither of which has historical precedent.
First option: The influx of people who have flocked to Kaua‘i to escape COVID-19 is not a permanent change, but a temporary state of affairs;
Second option: The influx is permanent and will reshape the island in some fundamental ways.
Or it could be a mix of both. Some may have come to escape COVID-19 but may decide not to stay. Or vice versa.
Two national trends are driving this. People are abandoning cities for a wide variety of reasons. I’ve heard recently that rents and home prices are in freefall in San Francisco, for example.
At the same time, people have discovered that in many — though clearly not all and perhaps not even most — professions have found they no longer have to be tied to being in a specific place to do their jobs. Permanent remote work has emerged as a viable option for millions. Kaua‘i beckons.
Of course, COVID-19 is the immediate driver of both of these trends. When the pandemic is eventually brought under control, some of these changes may turn out to be transient. But just in the tech sector, companies that were once constructing or planning large office complexes are putting those plans on hold or canceling them. Those companies are betting that this COVID-19-instigated, remote-work trend is the new normal.
Does that mean that the dream of Kaua‘i becoming a tech hub may come true? No one can possibly know right now. And is it a dream or a nightmare?
What if this is lasting, permanent change for Kaua‘i? I’m painfully aware that people in the business community are anticipating this and trying to discern what it means.
For one thing, the departure of residents who cannot afford to stay, many of whom are small-business owners, means that part of the community that sees business as inseparably tied to the local identity, suggests that the presumption that local businesses need to give back and contribute to the community will weaken.
The ability of local-business-driven-support organizations like Rotary and the Lions clubs is likely to degrade. That could tear into the island’s fiber.
And if the people coming here are not tied to Kaua‘i — if, for example, they’re in financial services and their days start here at 3 or 4 a.m. and isolate them on phones or at computers all day — the motivation to take on contributing community roles will diminish.
That’s not to say that Kaua‘i’s traditional, historic spirit — which derives mainly from the Native Hawaiian ancestry of so many residents and long-term influence of the Portuguese, Japanese, Pacific Islander and Chinese heritages this all represents — will be destroyed.
Kaua‘i will still be one of the most special places on Earth. The spirit of aloha will not be snuffed out — not by a long shot.
It does suggest, however, that what’s been happening during this pandemic year will be lasting and perhaps permanent in terms of how island society works. A wise approach is to see this reality taking shape and try to adapt to it, or finding ways to draw newcomers into the heritage of Kaua‘i.
We won’t know if what’s happening is permanent or temporary for five or 10 years — minimum. Recognizing it and finding ways to adapt is the only sensible approach.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public-relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.