Gov. David Ige’s administration has requested tens of millions of dollars in state funding to help reshape the way visitors view Hawaii, in hopes that more thoughtful tourists ultimately will boost resident sentiment about tourism in the islands.

All told the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s $60 million request for operations next fiscal year, which starts July 1, includes $34.2 million for activities related to branding, including separate programs related to Hawaiian culture, natural resources and community.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority is trying to change Hawaii’s brand from that of simply a tropical playground. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Another $14.4 million would be spent to support HTA’s global marketing team.

“To reiterate, the focus is on pre- and post-visitor education in key visitor source markets about Hawai‘i’s value proposition and their kuleana to mālama our people and place when they visit the state; attracting mindful, respectful and high-value travelers,” HTA said in a statement.

In an interview, HTA’s president and chief executive, John DeFries, said the overarching purpose of the campaign is to reshape the popular perception that Hawaii is merely the “Playground of the Pacific,” and instead send the message that Hawaii is a unique place with a fragile ecosystem, rich host culture and multi-ethnic population bound together by the aloha spirit.

To measure the effectiveness of the branding, DeFries said, the organization will look at three metrics: per visitor spending, visitor satisfaction and resident sentiment. One hope, DeFries said, is that as visitors gain a greater understanding of Hawaii, they will treat the place and residents with greater care and respect.

Branding for me is much like — if I were to use an agricultural metaphor — it’s like the quality of the soil, keeping it full of nutrients, keeping it aerated, keeping it fertile,” De Fries said. “So that whether your enterprise is a major hotel or whether you’re a mom-and-pop store in Hana, anything you plant in this soil called tourism grows properly because people understand Hawaii to be something unique, special and memorable, and worth investing in in terms of a vacation.”

HTA wants to send the message globally, to the U.S. and international markets, he said.

“What’s important is to make sure that we are sending a uniform and consistent message and identity out to all of those places,” he said.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has shifted its focus from simply marketing Hawaii to overhauling the state’s brand. A new campaign encourages visitors to volunteer on hiking trails, in taro patches and fish ponds in exchange for discounts at participating hotels.

HTA’s budget request is the first it is making since the Legislature dramatically changed the authority’s funding source during the 2021 session. Previously, hotel tax money was paid directly to the authority with a portion also allocated to the counties.

But that changed last year, when the Legislature voted to steer the hotel tax revenue to the general fund, allow counties to pass their own hotel taxes to make up for their lost revenue and require the HTA to make a budget request each year, as other departments must do.

The change means lawmakers have increased oversight over the HTA, which is changing its focus amidst a backlash from residents.

Previously the authority mainly marketed Hawaii as a tourist destination. But record numbers of tourists in 2019 soured public sentiment toward the industry, as hordes of visitors — averaging about 250,000 a day statewide — flooded beaches, hiking trails and other places. The ill will was so deep that even though the number of visitors plummeted amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, by late 2020, 57% of residents who responded to a Hawaii Tourism Authority survey completely or strongly agreed that Hawaii was too dependent on tourism, up from 37% in 2019. And 67% strongly or somewhat agreed that their “island is run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

Amidst that backdrop, HTA has pivoted from marketing the state to tourists to trying to manage the tourists, which involves branding. Asked specifically what the authority is doing to change public perception, DeFries pointed to what HTA calls its Malama Hawaii campaign. A series of videos shows outings of caring for taro patches, fish ponds, forests and other natural places.

But the campaign does more than simply show scenes of young visitors to Hawaii getting back to the land. Participating hotels provide free or discounted rooms or other perks for guests who donate their time.

The Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, for instance, offers guests $250 resort credits, plus a certificate toward a free night on a future stay if they volunteer at Pacific Whale Foundation or Lahaina Restoration Foundation. Properties like Marriott’s Laylow, Autograph Collection, in Waikiki, meanwhile, provide “voluntourists” a 20% discount off the hotel’s highest published “rack rate” if the guest stays at least five nights — the equivalent of a night free for guests paying full rates.

Senator: ‘It’s All A Waste Of Money’

Whether such programs attract enough helpful tourists to enhance residents’ attitudes toward tourists in general remains to be seen. But some are skeptical. During a recent briefing with HTA officials, Rep. Amy Perruso said her constituents see a conflict between HTA’s missions to both market and manage tourism.

In an interview, Sen. Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee, was even more pointed. He questioned the idea of spending so much money on branding — which he called “squishy” — and noted HTA has not said what changes in key performance indicators would be considered a success.

“They just don’t know how to define success, and when you can’t define success you have no accountability, and that’s what we have now — no accountability,” he said. “It’s all a waste of money.”

For his part, DeFries said HTA’s budget request is merely a request. He said he expects input from the Legislature and the HTA board in crafting a final budget. This fiscal year’s $60 million request for operations equals last year’s allocation, which came from federal relief funds. In the 2020-21 fiscal year, HTA received about $79 million.

In addition, this year HTA wants $28.5 million for Hawaii Convention Center operations. DeFries said the money is available in a special fund but that HTA needs legislative authorization to tap into it. The HTA also has asked for $64 million from general obligation bonds for convention center improvements.

How much the agency ultimately receives will depend on what lawmakers and others decide, he said. The next legislative session opens Wednesday and runs through early May.

“At the moment it literally is a ball of clay, and we’re about to sculpt it,” he said of HTA’s request.

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