Gov. David Ige’s administration is asking lawmakers for $150.5 million to fund tourism-related activities, including operating the Hawaii Convention Center and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Specifically, the request includes $60 million to pay for operations of the tourism authority, $28.5 million for convention center operations and maintenance and $64 million to replace the convention center’s leaking rooftop terrace deck.

Although the tourism authority was hardly the only agency that made requests during the 90-minute budget briefing, the authority’s requests – which were the largest by any agency – generated the most questions from lawmakers.

It’s a new situation for the HTA and the entity that oversees it, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Previously, the HTA got its funding from hotel tax money distributed directly to the tourism authority, so there was no need to go to lawmakers every year to request money.

waikiki Beach was packed with Hawaii having 628 cases of COVID-19 statewide.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority has asked for $150.5 million for the fiscal year starting in July, including $60 million in operational money so it can manage tourists and convince them “to give more than they take” when they visit. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But that changed last year, when the Legislature passed a bill eliminating the tourism authority’s special funding stream. So on Wednesday, DBEDT officials outlined the department’s money needs to the House Finance Committee, which will play a key role in crafting the state’s budget. And HTA was the main point of interest among lawmakers.

Several questions focused not simply on fiscal issues, such as the ticket price of certain items, but more broadly on the HTA’s mission. While the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted Hawaii’s dependence on visitors for income, many residents oppose the return of the record masses of tourists that came to the state before the pandemic.

Amidst the backlash, HTA has shifted its focus. Traditionally in charge of marketing Hawaii to tourists, HTA now is seeking to also manage tourists by trying to attract people who will respect Hawaii’s culture and environment and making sure they behave respectfully once they are here.

Underscoring HTA’s evolving mission, the authority’s president and chief executive, John DeFries, told lawmakers that the HTA’s $60 million operating request is at the same level as last year and would allow the agency to conduct destination management activities “mitigating the adverse impact of tourism on communities.”

But lawmakers were skeptical. For example, House Budget Committee Chair Sylvia Luke asked how HTA could expect a different result from its marketing when it is using the same marketing firm it always has for its mainland campaigns.

House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke
During Wednesday’s budget briefing, House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke pressed Hawaii Tourism Authority officials to explain how the agency had shifted its activities to manage rather than promote tourism. Screenshot/2022

DeFries acknowledged that was true but said the authority soon will craft a new request for proposals outlining Hawaii’s new vision for tourism and use that to hire a new firm.

In a similar vein, Rep. Amy Perruso said her constituents see an inherent conflict between HTA’s missions to both market and manage tourism. And she pointed out that the state could refurbish all of the state’s school cafeterias for about half of what HTA is asking for operations.

“Why should we spend $60 million to promote something that my community members don’t want?” she asked.

HTA’s chief branding officer, Kalani Kaanaana, stressed the authority is shifting toward educating tourists and calling on them to give back to Hawaii when they visit — “to give more than they take” – and to adopt Hawaiian values.

“How can they live those values with us?” he said. “How can they travel pono when they are here?”

But Luke questioned HTA’s messaging efforts. Specifically she asked how HTA has dealt with what the authority identified as the top issue of concern for Oahu residents: short-term vacation rentals.

Luke noted the HTA helped send the message for tourists not to come to Hawaii during a surge in the pandemic. She asked why HTA couldn’t do the same kind of messaging for illegal vacation rentals.

When DeFries noted vacation rentals were largely a county issue, Luke pressed the issue.

“For all of us, the counties can only do so much,” she said. “What type of messaging are you giving to tourists?”

Kaanaana said HTA has produced a one-minute video on “astute renting” on Maui and promised to share it with the committee.

While the questions of how well HTA has been managing tourists — and how much money it should get to keep doing what it’s done — might be debatable, there was one issue on which there was little wiggle room: the $64 million bill to fix the convention center roof. Last week’s rains posed such a problem that a 1,400-person convention had to be moved from one location to another, DeFries said.

And when asked whether the HTA had a “Plan B” in case the Legislature didn’t provide the money, the HTA officials said there wasn’t another plan.

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