Hawaii Should Restructure, Not De-Structure, Its Tourism Industry - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Angela Faanunu

Angela Faanunu is an assistant professor of tourism at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

In March, John De Fries, the CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, appeared as a guest speaker to tourism students at the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Business and Economics. De Fries was curious about how Hawaii’s youngest tourism stakeholders and future leaders thought about the industry.

He spoke of the need to malama Hawaii and the kuleana of protecting Hawaii’s host culture and the natural resources that support life in the islands – critical areas, foundational to Hawaii’s branding and identity as a tourism destination.

De Fries’ focus on core Hawaiian values resonated with UHH students whose institution has the highest proportion of Native Hawaiian students of the University of Hawaii campuses. UHH also ranked as the most diverse university in America in 2020, according to the U.S. News & World Report.

De Fries shared fond memories of a thriving Waikiki with a healthy reef ecosystem that was once important fishing grounds for Honolulu communities. But since the 1960s, and after decades of tourism, the landscape has changed. By 2019 visitor arrivals in Hawaii exceeded 10.4 million and tourism accounted for 19.2% of all employment and 16.2% of the state’s gross domestic product.

The environmental and social impacts of tourism are many and are well documented. Overtourism, a recent global phenomenon characterized by increasing resident dissatisfaction with tourism due to overcrowding, has extended to Hawaii. Resident satisfaction with tourism has declined from 80% in 2010 to 59% in 2018, suggesting a need to prioritize tourism management.

The HTA was created in 1998 and its mission is to “strategically manage Hawaii tourism in a sustainable manner consistent with economic goals, cultural values, preservation of natural resources, community desires, and visitor industry needs.” The agency’s strategic plan has four pillars: natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and branding.

A series of community-based tourism management plans for the various Hawaiian islands were recently published, following several years of community consultations. The plans propose actions that address the HTA’s mission at the county level. Though the agency has typically focused more on marketing than management activities, these efforts suggest a greater commitment to fulfilling its mission.

The need for the HTA to shift from a marketing focus to also prioritize tourism management, was highlighted in a UHERO report titled, “Charting a New Course for Hawai‘i Tourism.”

The report provided recommendations for HTA changes including creating a department or ministry of tourism to reflect its importance as Hawaii’s economic base, developing a long-range tourism plan with multiple agencies and restructuring HTA “as a ‘super’ agency with authority to act on tourism issues across jurisdictions and boundaries.”

The last recommendation is important to consider in agritourism, where polices to regulate tourism on agricultural lands differ in each county.

Sunday at Waikiki Beach with a backgrop of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and beachgoers and public enjoying the beach during the COVID-19 pandemic. April 11, 2021
As COVID-19 infection rates have dropped and vaccines have become available, Waikiki has seen more and more visitors arriving every day. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Destination marketing and management roles are highly interrelated concepts in tourism but destination marketing is often considered a subset of destination management. Destination management involves “coordinated and integrated management of destination products … [and] effective destination management requires a strategic or long-term approach based on a platform of destination visioning and tourism planning.”

Furthermore, Destination Management Organizations, like HTA, are often tasked with coordinating the efforts of many tourism stakeholders to achieve destination objectives.

The amendments to House Bill 862, which is scheduled to be heard at a conference committee meeting on Tuesday, would remove most of HTA’s existing responsibilities as a DMO except for marketing. This would significantly reduce the HTA’s capacity and turn it into a weaker agency. Tourism management would be delegated to various government agencies, but it is unclear how this would occur when many existing government agencies lack management capacity.

These amendments are concerning in a pandemic context where rebuilding tourism is critical for recovery, not to mention the need to address the long-term impacts of tourism, particularly on climate change. 

Restructuring HTA may be necessary but instead of stripping the agency of its roles, responsibilities and capacity, it is a better option to address gaps in the industry by leveraging and building upon HTA’s decades of experience as a tourism leader.

The  COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of tourism to Hawaii. Therefore, we should not rush important decisions on a complex industry. Instead, we should invest in developing good, comprehensive plans and strategies through stakeholder consultations, research and planning for a more effective and regenerative tourism industry.

Let us move forward rather than backward. Restructure, rather than de-structure, Hawaii’s tourism industry and give HTA the opportunity to follow through with its renewed focus on regenerative tourism. We owe this to our youth. It is their future that’s at stake. 

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About the Author

Angela Faanunu

Angela Faanunu is an assistant professor of tourism at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Latest Comments (0)

Most people visit Hawai'i to experience the naturalistic and cultural aspects of Hawaii, not for concrete jungle, expensive shopping areas like WaikÄ«kÄ«. They can easily support and maintain tourism by putting more emphasis on ecological and cultural priorities. 

penadurahi · 9 months ago

its https:// to "strategically manage Hawaii tourism in a sustainable manner consistent with economic goals, cultural values, preservation of natural resources, community desires, and visitor industry needs." It has honestly failed over the last 20 years to manage Hawaii tourism in a sustainable manner.

Scotty_Poppins · 9 months ago

Dear Angela,    Thankyou for your thoughtful and caring article.     As a resident of over 45 years who loves to get outside and enjoy and recharge in this beautiful place whenever I can, and also as a private tour guide who takes small groups around the island feeding back to local family businesses, eateries, people, wherever we go, I also agree management is the answer.    I personally see no problem that is so dire that it can’t be solved in a positive creative way. It seems we finally have a director at HTA who is native Hawaiian, who wants to engage the community, study any hotspots, and come up with a win-win situation for all.  Shifting the focus from selling,  to managing what’s already here.    There has been a vacuum of leadership, people don’t feel heard, and nothing seems to get done.    That can all change. Most visitors are good people who are no different than if your own family went on a vacation.     I still feel Hawaii has a bright future, and we can still live in the aloha the Hawaiians have taught us, as we shift from a buerocracy to a community involved leadership.     Greg 

Greg · 9 months ago

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