Governor David Ige’s administration has asked for tens of millions of dollars in public funding to help reshape the way visitors experience Hawaii, in hopes that more thoughtful tourists will ultimately bolster residents’ sentiment toward tourism in the islands.
In total, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s $60 million request for next fiscal year operations, which begins July 1, includes $34.2 million for branding-related activities, including programs related to Hawaiian culture, natural resources, and community.
An additional $14.4 million would be spent to support HTA’s global marketing team.
âTo reiterate, there is an emphasis on pre- and post-visitor education in key visitor source markets about Hawai’i’s value proposition and their kuleana for mÄlama our people and their place when they visit the state; attracting mindful, respectful and high-value travelers,â HTA said in a statement.
In an interview, HTA President and CEO John DeFries said the main goal of the campaign was to reshape the popular perception that Hawaii is just the “playground of the Pacific,” and to rather send the message that Hawaii is a unique place with a fragile ecosystem, a rich welcoming culture and a multi-ethnic population bound by the spirit of aloha.
To measure branding effectiveness, DeFries said, the organization will look at three metrics: spend per visitor, visitor satisfaction and resident sentiment. One hope, DeFries said, is that as visitors gain a better understanding of Hawaii, they’ll treat the place and the residents with more care and respect.
“Branding to me is a lot like â if I had to use an agricultural metaphor â it’s like soil quality, keeping it full of nutrients, keeping it airy, keeping it fertile,â De Fries said. “So whether your business is a large hotel or you’re a family store in Hana, whatever you plant in this soil called tourism grows well because people understand that Hawaii is something unique, special and memorable, and worth investing in vacation time.
HTA wants to send the message globally, to US and international markets, he said.
“What’s important is to make sure that we send a uniform and consistent message and identity to all of these places,” he said.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority shifted its focus from simply marketing Hawaii to rebranding the state. A new campaign encourages visitors to volunteer on hiking trails, taros and fish ponds in exchange for discounts at participating hotels.
HTA’s budget request is the first it’s made since the legislature dramatically changed the authority’s funding source in the 2021 session. Previously, hotel tax money went directly to the HTA. authority with a portion also allocated to counties.
But that changed last year, when the legislature voted to direct hotel tax revenue to the general fund, allow counties to pass on their own hotel taxes to make up for their lost revenue, and require the HTA to apply. of budget each year, as other departments must do.
The change means lawmakers have increased oversight of the HTA, which is changing direction amid a backlash from residents.
Previously, the authority primarily marketed Hawaii as a tourist destination. But record tourist numbers in 2019 soured public sentiment towards the industry, as hordes of visitors â averaging around 250,000 a day statewide â flooded beaches, hiking trails and d other places. The ill will ran so deep that even though visitor numbers plummeted amid the Covid-19 pandemic, by the end of 2020 57% of residents who responded to an investigation by the Hawaii Tourism Authority Completely or strongly agree that Hawaii is too dependent on tourism, up from 37% in 2019. And 67% strongly or somewhat agree that their âisland is run for tourists at the expense of localsâ .
In this context, HTA has moved from state marketing to tourists to tourist management, which involves branding. Asked specifically about what the authority is doing to change public perception, DeFries pointed to what HTA calls its malama hawaii countryside. A series of videos show care outings for taro patches, fish ponds, forests and other natural places.
But the campaign does more than just show scenes of young visitors to Hawaii returning to earth. Participating hotels offer free or discounted rooms or other benefits for guests who volunteer their time.
The Four Seasons Resort Maui in Wailea, for example, offers guests $250 resort credits, plus a certificate for a free night on a future stay if they volunteer at the Pacific Whale Foundation or Lahaina. Restoration Foundation. Establishments like Marriott’s Laylow, autograph collectionin Waikiki, meanwhile, are offering âvolunteer touristsâ a 20% discount off the highest published hotel pricedisplayed price” if the guest stays at least five nights – the equivalent of one free night for guests paying the full price.
Senator: “Everything is a waste of money”
It remains to be seen whether these programs attract enough helpful tourists to improve residents’ attitude towards tourists in general. But some are skeptical. In a recent briefing with HTA officials, Rep. Amy Perruso said her constituents see a conflict between HTA’s missions to market and manage tourism.
In an interview, Senator Glenn Wakai, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism, was even more pointed. He questioned the idea of ââspending so much money on branding â which he called âspongyâ â and noted that HTA did not say 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 responsibility, and that’s what we have now – no responsibility,” he said. “It’s all a waste of money.”
For his part, DeFries said HTA’s budget request is just a request. He said he expects input from the Legislative Assembly and the HTA Board of Directors in developing a final budget. The $60 million request for operations this fiscal year matches last year’s allocation, which came from federal relief funds. In fiscal year 2020-2021, HTA received approximately $79 million.
Additionally, this year, HTA wants $28.5 million for Hawaii Convention Center operations. DeFries said the money is available in a special fund, but HTA needs legislative authority to draw from it. The HTA has also requested $64 million in general obligation bonds for improvements to the convention center.
How much the agency ultimately receives will depend on what lawmakers and others decide, he said. The next legislative session opens on Wednesday and ends in early May.
“Right now it’s literally a ball of clay, and we’re about to sculpt it,” he said of HTA’s request.