Gov. Josh Green plans to spend $60 million to keep the agency alive — for now.

After escaping death at the hands of lawmakers during the past legislative session, the agency in charge of marketing Hawaii as a tourist destination has found new life — and support from a former tourism executive now running the department overseeing the agency.

Jimmy Tokioka, acting director of Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said he’s committed to working with lawmakers to keep the Hawaii Tourism Authority alive, despite efforts by lawmakers to kill or reshape it – or reduce it to some kind of zombie entity, shuffling along without funding and uncertain political support.

“It almost happened that way,” Tokioka said.

Instead, while lawmakers did cut funding to the agency, Gov. Josh Green’s administration plans in the short run to steer money to the tourism authority from a discretionary fund.

Longer term, Tokioka said, the plan is for the authority to do a better job communicating to legislators what the authority is doing to not only market Hawaii but also to mitigate the negative side effects of tourism. The hope is to win support from lawmakers.

The acting director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism stressed the Hawaii Tourism Authority must do a better job communucating how it is managing tourism and not simply marketing. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“Yes, Jimmy’s talked about that with us,” said Ilihia Gionson, a spokesman for the HTA. “We’re looking forward to working on that with him.”

It’s an outlook far different from just a few months ago, when the HTA appeared on the way out. A House bill called for renaming the state agency and refocusing its mission from tourism marketing to management. A Senate bill went further, dissolving the HTA entirely and refashioning what’s now a quasi-independent agency governed by a board of tourism executives into a division of DBEDT.

Both bills made it through a gauntlet of committee hearings in both houses, only to die at the 11th hour, in conference committee.

A key lawmaker said it was a challenge to radically change the tourism authority simply because the proposals moved so quickly. The tourism authority’s enabling statute focuses on marketing activities, including entering contracts for things like “tourism promotion, marketing, and development,” “market development-related research,” and “product development and diversification issues focused on visitors.”

A bill sponsored by Rep. Sean Quinlan, chairman of the House Tourism Committee, would have changed the statute, refashioning the authority to focus more on managing tourism rather than marketing. The bill outlasted a Senate measure and appeared to be the Legislature’s preferred bill. But it died in the end.

Quinlan said that it was natural for lawmakers to pause. The Legislature is normally accustomed to making iterative changes, he said. Suddenly lawmakers faced the prospect of dissolving the authority, which the Legislature established in 1998 with the power to market Hawaii as a tourist destination and to manage the Hawaii Convention Center.

“Even if an idea is great, it’s going to be hard to pass in its first year,” Quinlan said. “It’s a whole different conversation with your colleagues if something is actually going to pass.”

Hotel Industry Supports Tourism Authority

Another obvious challenge was pushback from the industry.

Jerry Gibson is president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, whose members own and operate 29,000 hotel rooms across the state. Gibson said the state’s hotel tax revenue is expected to reach almost $1 billion this year.

“That is one heck of a lot of money,” Gibson said. “And that money we believe from the hoteliers’ standpoint can be used for many, many purposes in our state.”

That includes housing and destination management, he said. But it also means marketing, ideally though a central authority that can coordinate with other government departments.

“We can never stop marketing the state no matter how well we think we are doing,” he said.

A former executive with Holiday Inn Corp. in Hawaii and on the mainland, Tokioka also served as a state representative from 2011 to 2023.

He said Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke also has stepped in to help get legislative support for the tourism authority.

Luke, formerly the longtime chair of the House Finance Committee, said lawmakers were frustrated with a perception that the HTA was not doing enough to manage tourism and support “regenerative tourism.”

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said lawmakers will have a chance to respond to Gov. Josh Green’s use of discretionary money to fund an agency that lawmakers initially chose not to fund. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“Legislators are very frustrated with the direction and vision that they have seen HTA move in,” she said.

But the tourism authority has taken clear steps to change its direction. In the past, when seeking proposals aimed at its major U.S. market, the agency would focus on marketing by issuing a single marketing contract.

This time, the HTA has issued two requests for proposals: one to market Hawaii to tourists, the other focused on destination management and regenerative tourism. HTA expects to unveil the winning proposals in the next few weeks, Tokioka and Gionson said.

In the meantime, Tokioka said, the administration is hoping to steer about $60 million in discretionary money to the HTA.

Green does not have a blank check, Luke said.

The governor still must announce his intention to give the money to HTA in a message to lawmakers. Although lawmakers can’t stop the governor from spending the money, Luke said, they will have the opportunity to comment publicly, showing disapproval of Green’s move if the administration hasn’t addressed their concerns.

“It’s not as if the governor can do whatever he wants,” Luke said. “It’s not just kind of a pass.”

And can the tourism authority survive another legislative session after its brush with death?

“I hope so,” Tokioka said. “The answer to that question lies with the Legislature.”

Help Power Local, Nonprofit News.

Across the nation and in Hawaii, news organizations are downsizing and closing their doors due to the ever-rising costs of keeping local journalism alive and well.

While Civil Beat has grown year over year, still only 1% of our readers are donors, and we need your help now more than ever.

Make a gift today of any amount, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,500, thanks to a generous group of Civil Beat donors.

About the Author