Local Businesses Re-examine Relationship with Kamaʻāina Customer

Jun 24, 2020

Businesses across the state are continuing to re-open after months of COVID-19 closures. But with the mandatory two-week quarantine still in place for out-of-state tourists, businesses are re-examining their relationships with the sometimes overlooked kamaʻāina customer. 


Business is picking up again says Hilo shop owner Mua Merriman. Her store Island Nation carries one hundred percent local products from clothing to Hawaiian books to hats and bumper stickers. She says her customer base has always been a healthy balance of tourism versus local.

Island Nation, a retail store carrying 100 percent local products, has seen a 75 percent drop in business since the COVID-19 closures. For store owner Mua Merriman, reopening means figuring out how to sustain business without relying so heavily on tourists.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“The local customers always come back you know they know if they need something, they know where to go,” says Merryman.

But since the COVID-19 closures, sales have dropped by 75 percent. The quarantine mandate for out-of-state travelers virtually shut down the state’s tourism industry, which just last year reported a record 10 million visitors. Merryman hopes local consumers can keep her in business.

“You know it’s hard because that tourist income is definitely something we all benefit from,” says Merryman. 

Down the street at the Hilo Farmer’s Market, vendor occupancy is down 70 percent. Keith De La Cruz owns and manages the market. He says vendors don’t care if their customers are locals or tourists.


The Hilo Farmer's Market has also seen vendor occupancy drop by 70 percent - with vendors reluctant to operate under COVID-19 and others waiting for tourist dollars to start flowing once again.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“Anything would be better than the last two or three months,” says De La Cruz.

Half of the market’s vendors sell produce while the other half sell arts and crafts, and mostly to tourists. De La Cruz says vendors are eager for tourist dollars but they’re also aware of the public health risk of increased out-of-state travel.

“Realistically, I’m not sure if it’s going to come back as fast as people want or as strong as people want,” says De La Cruz, “And we might even have a couple of setbacks along the way.”

Credit Downtown Hilo Business Improvement Association


Hilo bar owner Ryan Williams hasnʻt reopened yet. His drinking establishment Margarita Village is right across the street from Hilo Harbor, a perfect spot for cruise ship passengers.

“Kamaʻāina and locals are very, very supportive of local businesses as much as they can but you know there’s only so much that us locals and kamaʻāina people can do to support each other,” says Williams, “We need the influx of regular tourists as well to really make the economy come back.” 


Hawaiian language resource books, arts and crafts and more at the Island Nation shop in downtown Hilo.
Credit Island Nation

Merriman believes a certain amount of tourist dollars will eventually come back, but she wants to position her business in a way that caters to the kamaʻāina.

“I do think that it’s kind of a sacrifice that in the long run its better for us because it’s so hard to be dependent on such a fluctuating industry and just for Hawaiʻi to be more sustainable in general is the direction we should move in,” says Merriman, “So I guess, I am willing to make some sort of sacrifice.”