December 3, 2023

Travel Hawaii

It's Your Travel Hawaii

Hawaii Tourism Authority fights back as legislation to abolish it advances: Travel Weekly

HONOLULU — Backers of the two bills created to disband the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) haven’t lost any steam since introducing the legislation in January, but both sides are standing their ground.

Speaking at Travel Weekly’s Leadership Forum here earlier this month, HTA CEO John De Fries defended the organization and warned of increased government influence over Hawaii’s tourism industry. 

“Twenty-five years ago, HTA was created primarily to take the politics out of the industry, and the repeal of HTA in many ways is an attempt to restore that,” he told a room of travel industry leaders. 

De Fries likened the bills to “throwing the baby out and keeping the bathwater.”

“The Hawaii Tourism Authority has important work to do,” he said. “Changing the name and cutting and pasting the current statute, which enables HTA to exist, is not a solution.” 

The two bills, House Bill 1375 and Senate Bill 1522, aim to disband the HTA for failing to “effectively execute its duties to manage the tourism marketing plans for the state.” 

The failure refers to the HTA’s U.S. brand management tourism contract, in limbo since 2021. The contract had long been held by the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, but the HTA caused a stir when it offered the contract to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement last summer. When the HVCB formally protested, the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism canceled both bids. Lawmakers pounced, proposing to dissolve the HTA. 

Among the backers of the legislation is state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who said during an HTA update earlier this month that no business would think it’s “acceptable” to “fail to get [the contract] out three times in a row.”

As of mid-April, Hawaii’s Senate and House had not agreed to the language in each other’s bills and will have to go to a conference committee, where members from both chambers must come to an agreement by April 28. 

While most of the language in the bills is virtually identical and propose the creation of an Office of Tourism and Destination Management, there are a few key differences. 

The House wants to appropriate $60 million to fund the new office while the Senate proposes $50 million. The House Bill also appropriates $64 million to repair the Hawaii Convention Center rooftop terrace deck, while the Senate bill does not. 

Once complete, the final version of the bill has to pass both chambers by May 2. If it does, it will then go to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, who must sign or veto the bill by July 11.

Destination management over marketing

The Office of Tourism and Destination Management the lawmakers propose would be focused on responsible stewardship and regenerative tourism, the bills say. It would be led by an executive director and reside within the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. It would be governed by a board of directors from all counties plus members from the hospitality industry. 

State Rep. Sean Quinlan, a co-author of HB1375, said at the HTA session that such a structure would work better for “me and for my community and for any communities around the state. Instead of having marketing at the top of the pyramid and everything flowing from that, [this would] have destination management at the top of the pyramid and have marketing messaging, cultural sensitivity and support flow from that. It’s a mindset change.”

Since becoming CEO in 2020, De Fries restructured the HTA, pivoting to destination management. He implemented destination management action plans with regenerative tourism as a focus. De Fries also announced the Malama Hawaii voluntourism campaign in 2021. 

But Quinlan says things are not moving fast enough.

“We have constituents that want these problems solved now, and they don’t want to have to wait any longer,” he said. “It affects their quality of life. So I’ve always thought there needs to be more emphasis put on the destination management.”

De Fries defended the HTA at the forum, saying that when constituents complain to elected officials about visitors, the HTA becomes a scapegoat, even though some tourism-related issues are not within its control. 

“So the cure becomes, ‘let’s shrink HTA’s budget’ or ‘let’s dissolve HTA,’ which is tantamount to saying ‘we’ve got too many fires so let’s have less fire stations,'” De Fries said. “My concern that I’m dealing with right now is the legislature appears to be focused on how we manage the moment and not where we’re moving, not where we need to go.”