Peter Apo: How To Manage Hawaii Tourism For The Future - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city’s director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.

It’s no secret that Hawaii’s people, over the years, have become increasingly impatient about the impact of tourism on their day to day lives. I would describe it as a love-hate tug of war.

The love part is rooted in the aloha extended by Hawaiians to all who came to Hawaii beginning with the immigrant populations of the plantation era. The aloha was color blind and manifested itself in hundreds of interracial marriages over the years. That same spirit of aloha was then fully extended by Hawaii’s multicultural population to the early visitors and it didn’t take long for the aloha brand to go global.

As tourism began its meteoric climb to becoming Hawaii’s No. 1  industry, investment from abroad skyrocketed. With few restraints and a distracted state government, little attention was being paid to the evolving growth model and the rise of negative impacts that began to affect the daily lives of the local population. That’s when the hate part began its creep.

It all seems to be coming to a head now because the pandemic provided the unsuspecting opportunity for widespread relief from the day-to-day impact of an unrelenting industry. An industry that permeates every aspect of island life, every day, all day.

The pandemic gave Hawaii a chance to breathe. This breather has triggered what I believe to be a community-wide sentiment that Hawaii does not want to go back to the same model that stresses our tourist-carrying capacity as an island.

I would qualify characterizing the rising public call to hit the reset button on Hawaii tourism by stating what it is not. I do not believe it is an anti-tourism call, although I’m sure there are some who wish it would all go away. I do believe it is a rational call for sanity and proper management of an important industry.

George Kanahele, a brilliant and outspoken Hawaiian author, scholar and businessman, put it simply with his Guest-Host-Place triangle graphic. The words Benefits of Tourism are positioned at the center of the triangle. Each of the three corners of the triangle are alternately marked Guest, Host and Place. The message is that Benefits of Tourism have to accrue equally to all three corners of the triangle. I believe HTA, with its new leadership structure, is on the right track in its recent launch of a broadband initiative of Destination Management Action Plans.

The Hawaii Tourism Strategic Plan: 2005-2015

Some movement toward government-driven management of the industry began to occur in 1984 with groundwork being done under the umbrella of the state Department of Planning and Economic Development. That led to a 1991 legislative action amending the State Planning Act in a call for development of a State Tourism Functional Plan.

It took until 1998 to create the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The Hawaii Visitors Bureau, as a quasi-private entity, was in existence but devoted strictly to marketing. It was absorbed under the umbrella of HTA and is now the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Beachgoers enjoy the sun at Waikiki Beach during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beachgoers enjoy the sun at Waikiki Beach during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In 1999 the HTA established Ke Kumu: Strategic Directions for Hawaii’s Visitor Industry. The plan spells out a “sustainable tourism” policy directive. The Ke Kumu narrative states “… it became clear … a more comprehensive and inclusive plan that addressed the needs as well as identified the responsibilities of all Hawaii’s visitor industry stakeholders was needed.” The result was the Hawaii Tourism Strategic Plan: 2005-2015.

The stakeholder groups cited in the plan for consultation were community organizations, residents and visitors, executive and legislative branches of government, federal, state and county government agencies, private sector organizations and businesses. The plan spells out the challenge:  “… the Tourism Strategic Plan (TSP) will only be successful if all stakeholders participate and take on the tasks that fall under their areas of responsibility.”

So, since 2005, there has existed an HTA intention clearly stated in the Tourism Strategic Plan: 2005-2015 to support the nine objectives of its vision which foresees a future in which tourism will “honor Hawai‘i’s people and heritage, value and perpetuate our natural and cultural resources, and engender mutual respect among all stakeholders.” The nine objectives of the plan included communications and outreach, Hawaiian culture, workforce development, safety and security, research and planning, natural resources, access and product development.

So, for all the time, effort and expense it took to formulate the TSP, why was it not more effective in addressing resident concerns? Because HTA did not, and does not, have the authority over many of the state and county agencies and several key private sector organizations whose cooperation is vital to make the plan work.

In other words, it will take the whole village to build the canoe to get us off the beach. And so far, getting everyone to the table has been an uphill struggle.

HTA 2021: Destination Management Action Plans

The pandemic has been somewhat of a blessing. It has forced a serious dialogue about the need to come up with a recovery plan. Under the new leadership of John DeFries and the HTA board the term destination management has taken on a heightened sense of urgency. There is an irony here that while the post-pandemic dialogue has forced the recovery conversation, HTA’s response to the call for a recovery plan is actually a return to the table set by the original TSP rather than what might seem to some as a new start.

HTA hit the reset button in navigating a framework for recovery with a fresh approach that mirrors some of the broad concepts put forward in the TSP. They have labelled the new planning effort as Destination Management Action Plans.

The tourism slowdown during the pandemic gave the state an opportunity to rethink how it manages the industry. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

HTA defines the overarching purposes of the DMAP as follows: Rebuild, redefine and reset tourism’s direction over a three-year period through a collaborative process; engage Hawaii’s visitor industry, communities and other sectors; identify areas of need that require management for proactive mitigation planning.

As defined in HTA’s Strategic Plan 2020-2025, destination management includes “… attracting and educating responsible visitors; advocating for solutions to overcrowded attractions, overtaxed infrastructure, and other tourism-related problems; and working with other responsible agencies to improve natural and cultural assets valued by both Hawai‘i residents and visitors.”

HTA, in partnership with the counties and the respective island visitors bureaus, have developed Destination Management Action Plans for Kauai, Maui Nui (Maui, Molokai and Lanai), and Hawaii island. The Oahu DMAP is still in progress. This work will help in recovery efforts and rebuilding our tourism model by providing a 360 degree framework of government agencies, other institutions – and most important – the community-based organizations representing residents.

Here’s my suggestion. All the plans in the world are for naught if they sit on a shelf and agency leaders are absent from the table. While HTA has to function as a facilitator of the DMAP process it cannot be expected to assume the job of herding cats as has been the history with HTA attempts to fully activate the original Hawaii Tourism Strategic Plan.

Gov. David Ige should consider creating a Cabinet seat for the HTA chief executive officer. Hawaii’s tourism industry impacts every major state agency and recovery cannot work without them. Having HTA represented at the Cabinet table affords a frequency of opportunity for HTA’s CEO to direct dialogue with the heads of the departments of state and the governor.

All state agencies are important but the four most important, in the case of tourism, are the departments of Transportation, Land and Natural Resources, Accounting and General Services, and Labor and Industrial Relations. Having HTA inside the circle rather than continuing as a bystander could go a long way toward getting the canoe off the beach. Imua.

Read this next:

Biden’s Infrastructure Deal Doesn’t Invest In Housing For Hawaii

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city’s director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.

Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo Peter for your article and CB for posting it. I've been a tour guide on and off since the mid seventies and I enjoy working with tourists, however there have to be limits. 10 million yikes! I was also a classroom teacher. You can see the quality diminsh as you add more students. That's why we have private schools with 12-25 students per class. That's why the private schools can charge more and still have a waiting list. Why don't we have a quality based tourism plan that charges more and provides a better experience for the tourists that can afford it? No more walking lock step up Diamond Head. I enjoy my HS groups but they may get priced out in this scenario. Just a thought.

Koaniani · 5 months ago

Problem is the State is focused and wasting resources on tourism and how to manage it and not working on developing other industries like agriculture, aquaculture, technology, etc that would benefit the state and its residents. 

surferx808 · 5 months ago

It’s funny..when one travels to Tahiti the people there bemoan the lack of tourism and the money they would bring in order to finally make clean and wide streets, to replace old-world infrastructure with modern ones, to fund better schools for their children, to create good jobs for the people, etc.I love French Polynesia…they are even more beautiful islands than Hawaii with the natural lagoons, the abundant sea life, the thick jungles to explore, and the friendly and modest people. However, while I love the "old-world charm" of those islands, many parts of the islands are "third-world" with dirt roads, little modern infrastructure, no trash collection (fires are everywhere to burn the trash), no modern conveniences like fully stocked grocery or department stores, etc.Perhaps the best solution to this "problem" of too many tourists for Hawaii is to make the Hawaii Tourism Board focus much of their efforts to promoting French Polynesia as the better destination: Hawaii gets less tourists, the Tourism Board gets to work on a great project, and Tahiti and Moorea finally gets money to make great roads and buildings (keep the dirt roads in Bora Bora - it adds to the charm there).

Gus_Levy · 5 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.