This Hawaii Program Will Pay Your Airfare to Live and Work Remotely From the Islands

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Hawaii will welcome 50 newcomers from out of state in the coming months thanks to a new temporary residency program called Movers & Shakas. Formed by a group of local nonprofits, alumni associations and business leaders in partnership with the state government, the initiative aims to attract working professionals from around the U.S. to move to and work remotely from Hawaii, contribute to the local economy and get involved in community-building efforts severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Organizers point to the program's unique "give and get" structure: Professionals will work remotely from the islands and contribute their skills and expertise to diversify the local business community. New residents will also be expected to volunteer with local nonprofits that serve the community's youth, education, entrepreneurship efforts and more.

In return, new residents will receive free airfare to the state and get to enjoy life in Hawaii. The program will also help newcomers get settled through discounted living accommodations, co-working space memberships and other deals throughout their stay.

Building a more resilient economy

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated Hawaii's $18 billion tourism industry, the single largest source of private capital for the state's economy, and traffic remains severely depressed. The number of passengers flying to Hawaii in early October was down more than 90% from a year ago.

Over the summer, however, Hawaii business leaders including Jason Higa noticed a significant number of former Hawaii residents were returning home while continuing to work remotely for their mainland employer. Higa, who is also CEO of FCH Enterprises, parent company of the restaurant chain Zippy's, thought a program that encouraged this type of pattern could help the state build a more resilient economy, particularly by attracting professionals to spur its business and technology sectors.

One of those residents is Richard Matsui, who left Hawaii for college 15 years ago and has spent the last decade working in the San Francisco Bay area. While he never planned to return home, he recognized the opportunity to do so as the pandemic normalized remote work. "It felt outside of what I was contemplating before," he tells CNBC Make It, "but that's 2020 for you."

So in early summer, he moved himself, his wife and their 1-year-old daughter to Hawaii, where he continues to work remotely as CEO of kWh Analytics, a data analytics and financial services firm for the solar energy industry. His parents live nearby and are also happy to have family closer to home.

"The pandemic has been a massive crisis first and foremost," says Matsui, a volunteer spearheading Movers & Shakas efforts. "Ever since I was little, every single politician has said they'd work to diversify our economy. And here we are in 2020 still very much reliant on tourism, which fell by 90%. What else do we have? It's a tight spot."

He hopes the program will encourage other Hawaiians to return from the mainland, as well as remove barriers for people from other states to move to Hawaii for the first time.

Organizers hope to seed industries not reliant on transportation across the ocean and believe a new class of remote workers can help the state make progress. Attracting people who telework for companies across the Pacific, they say, can require less land usage, isn't extractive toward host culture and does not deprive locals of opportunities.

They also believe capping the program to an initial 50 people will limit significant economic shifts to real estate prices in the long-term.

How to apply

Movers & Shakas is accepting applications through Dec. 15, and finalists may be asked to participate in a video interview. Applicants must also take the Pledge to Our Keiki, which is "a commitment to respect and protect the life, lands and waters of Hawaii."

The first class will include 50 residents who will be flown into Oahu, home to the state capital of Honolulu, and additional candidates will be assessed on a rolling basis. Participants will be expected to move within one month of being notified of acceptance, work remotely for a mainland employer, volunteer for 15 hours per month and stay on the island for at least one month. Partners and families are also encouraged to apply.

Visitors to Hawaii, which has maintained one of the lowest per capita rates of Covid-19 infections in the country, must either obtain a negative virus test within 72 hours of departure, or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Higa adds that a stand-out applicant will be someone who currently volunteers in their local community and is willing to continue to contribute their skillset and experience while in Hawaii.

Although Matsui says newcomers may find the biggest adjustment to Hawaii life is a higher cost of living, because many goods must be imported, he finds many people settle into the welcoming and vibrant community quickly. He himself had only planned to stay in Hawaii for a month during the pandemic, which then stretched to several months and has now become a permanent move for his family.

Furthermore, "Hawaii is a place where 'aloha' is more than just a greeting or way to say goodbye," he says. "It's a philosophy of how we interact with each other. I think that's easily missed from people not from here. This is the opportunity for someone interested in learning what makes Hawaii special and enable them to participate in that first-hand."

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