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Each year, millions of tourists flock to Hawaii to take advantage of the islands’ white sandy beaches, huge waves and tropical weather. But some Hawaii lawmakers think the state tourism agency needs to improve its strategy for luring visitors to the Aloha State.
Senate Tourism Committee Chairman Gil Kahele is pushing Senate Bill 2426 which would require the agency to streamline its marketing plan into a single document that includes information about the agency’s promotional efforts, programs and strategic goals.
The bill also imposes stricter reporting requirements on the tourism agency to make it more transparent about its progress toward achieving its objectives.
Kahele said he introduced SB 2426 in response to a highly critical audit of the Hawaii Tourism Authority released last December.
The analysis by the state auditor berated HTA’s marketing plan, saying that it consists of 15 documents that total 578 pages. The audit also criticized how the agency manages its marketing contracts, noting that HTA doesn’t require final reports from contractors or conduct final evaluations of them.
“The authority’s incohesive, self-described “marketing plan” and poor reporting on measures of effectiveness impede transparency,” wrote Jan Yamane, the acting state auditor, in the audit’s summary.
SB 2426 is one of several bills introduced in response to the audit this year. The bill awaits a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Yamane said the audit was part of a periodic review of the agency and that SB 2426 will help ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent effectively. Over the past six years, the agency received an average of $140.5 million each year, mainly from taxes on hotel rooms and other short-term accommodations.
Mike McCartney, the agency’s executive director, said the tourism authority is taking the auditor’s concerns constructively and wants to improve.
“We have autonomy, and in exchange for autonomy, we have to have accountability so policymakers can better measure our effectiveness,” he said. The agency, created in 1999, is exempt from the state’s procurement code and some administrative oversight of boards and commissions. Lawmakers also exempted HTA from the state’s open meetings law in 2010 to help Hawaii maintain a competitive advantage as a visitor destination.
While SB 2426 would require more disclosure from the agency, the bill still allows the agency to withhold information that could jeopardize Hawaii’s competitive advantage.
McCartney helped draft the bill that created HTA when he was a legislator. Kahele said SB 2426 also gives the agency the opportunity to fix existing inconsistencies in the statute.
Kahele said the measure won’t shift the direction of Hawaii’s marketing efforts but it will make sure the agency is engaged in a more cohesive, focused effort.
“What is Hawaii’s marketing plan?” he said. “We want to make sure it’s all compiled and addresses those concerns [in the auditor’s report].”
Rep. Tom Brower, who leads the House Tourism Committee, said that overall, he’s happy with HTA’s work and McCartney’s leadership but thinks that reforming the agency will help taxpayers discover more of “what we’re getting for our money.”
“HTA is so large and it has its fingers in so many different bowls it’s hard to keep track of everything,” he said.
Tourism is Hawaii’s biggest industry, fueling 20 percent of the state’s economy and bringing in more than $14 billion each year.
According to HTA, the visitor industry generated 152,864 jobs in 2010, more than any other industry, and generated $1 billion in tax revenue.
In 2012, nearly 8 million tourists came to Hawaii, a record number of travelers.
“Should they be held accountable?” Yamane said. “I would say yes. We all depend upon them.”