John De Fries took the helm of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) a month, almost to the day, before the scheduled launch this week of a crucial foresight program for restarting tourism in the state.
“It’s a vertical learning curve,” De Fries said. “Not just for me, frankly, but for the whole industry.”
The program, which would allow visitors to bypass a strict 14-day quarantine if they test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours of arriving, would be the state’s first major step toward reviving its economy. Among US states, only Nevada is more dependent on tourism, but Hawaii’s isolation has also become a factor. Nevada’s largest food market is the drive-thru market in California, but the islands rely on long-haul flights to ferry visitors.
De Fries, the first native Hawaiian to be named CEO of the HTA, grew up in Waikiki and was previously director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and president of consulting and project management firm Native Sun Business Group. At HTA, De Fries has centered his program on the concept of malamameaning “to feed” or “to take care of”.
“We need to hurt each other as local people the same way we hurt the ocean and the forest,” he said. “Because in our business, we’re going to have to malama the visitor, and in return we’re going to have to educate the visitor on how they malama us.
“I intend to make malama the sister of aloha. Aloha is a kind of feeling that you can express that is much more subtle, yet powerful. Malama is a verb, it’s an action.”
And Hawaii needs action. After a record 10.4 million visitors in 2019, the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization estimates that 2020 numbers will be 73% lower than last year.
“De Fries really found everything we were looking for,” said Ben Rafter, HTA Board Member and CEO of Springboard Hospitality. “He has an enthusiasm for tourism in Hawaii and a vision to evolve tourism to be different and healthy.
“The reality is that if tourism is not healthy, the state economy is not healthy.”
Carriers are expected to connect 29 city pairs combined between Hawaii and the mainland United States during the week of October 12. The accumulation is expected to reach 41 routes by the week of Nov. 2 and 44 by Thanksgiving week, three weeks later.
During its first few weeks, De Fries held meetings with the HTA’s marketing partner organizations for the continental United States, Canada, South Korea, Japan and Oceania. The state’s tourist site, GoHawaii.com, hosts a flowchart for testing procedures, and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is working on a “Malama Hawaii” campaign offering a free one-night stay in exchange. participation in a voluntary activity.
De Fries’ main concerns with the pre-travel testing program are the quality and availability of testing and the human behavior wild card. He reviewed the security protocols of various industry associations, including hotels and restaurants, and called them “incredibly high”. But he added that it’s crucial for Hawaii to keep its Covid-19 infection rate stable or else people won’t be at risk of traveling to the islands.
“The system is going to be tested, and we have to pay attention to it and respond to it,” he said. “The standards set by each industry are just the starting line, and hotels, restaurants, airlines and other businesses must commit to exceeding, refining and improving them.”
Echoing that sentiment, Hawaii Tourism and Lodging Association President Mufi Hannemann said the industry is ready, but expects some trial and error.
“It will take a lot of legwork to rebuild trust with our partners and the traveling public as we compete for people who want to travel in 2020,” he said.
Orbiting on the periphery of the crisis is a bigger reckoning for tourism in Hawaii. Before the pandemic, polls showed residents were growing weary of tourism in the face of overcrowding and rising housing costs.
“I also have a responsibility as a community advocate,” De Fries said. “The truth is, it’s all bricks and mortar until the community is involved, so it’s up to HTA to help redefine this notion of ‘we’ as an industry and community together, seamlessly.”
In recent years, elected officials, community organizations and industry analysts have argued that the ETS should address destination management as much as destination marketing. To address areas of potential overcrowding or visitor-resident conflicts, the HTA is leading a process of developing plans with a range of state agencies as well as community input, De Fries said.
In January, the HTA released a five-year strategic plan built around four pillars: natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and brand marketing.
“For Hawaii as a whole, I think this pandemic has been a wake-up call,” Rafter said. “We need to manage tourists better, and we’re not going to go back to 2019 numbers anytime soon. This is an opportunity to take a step back and look at things from a logistical perspective.”
De Fries will mark his 100th day on the job on Christmas Day, a time when Hawaii is usually bustling with vacationers. It will be a success, he said, if he has instilled and operationalized the “malama mindset” by then.
“I have faith in Hawaiians and communities to be innovative and creative, and I must help preserve the space for them to do so,” he said. “Communities will define what the future of tourism in Hawaii will look like.”