Hawaii tourism

Peter Apo: How to Manage Hawaii Tourism for the Future

It’s no secret that Hawaiians over the years have grown increasingly impatient with the impact of tourism on their daily lives. I would describe it as a love-hate showdown.

The share of love is rooted in the aloha extended by Hawaiians to all who came to Hawaii beginning with the immigrant populations of the plantation era. Aloha was color blind and has manifested itself in hundreds of interracial marriages over the years. This same spirit of aloha was then fully extended by Hawaii’s multicultural population to early visitors and it didn’t take long for the aloha brand to go global.

As tourism began its meteoric rise to become Hawaii’s No. 1 industry, foreign investment soared. With few constraints and a distracted state government, little attention was given to the changing pattern of growth and the rise of negative impacts that began to affect the daily lives of local people. That’s when the hateful part started its creep.

Everything seems to be coming to a head now because the pandemic has provided the unsuspecting opportunity for widespread relief from the daily impact of an unrelenting industry. An industry that permeates every aspect of island life, every day, all day.

The pandemic has given Hawaii a chance to breathe. This pause has sparked what I believe is a community-wide feeling that Hawaii does not want to go back to the same model that emphasizes our ability to transport tourists as an island.

I would qualify the characterization of the growing public call to push the reset button on Hawaii tourism by stating what it is not. I don’t believe this is an anti-tourism appeal, although I’m sure there are those who wish it was all gone. I believe this is a rational appeal to sanity and good management of an important industry.

George Kanahele, a brilliant and outspoken Hawaiian author, scholar, and businessman, put it simply with his Guest-Host-Place triangle chart. The words Tourism Benefits are positioned in the center of the triangle. Each of the three corners of the triangle is alternately labeled Guest, Host and Venue. The message is that the benefits of tourism must extend equally to the three corners of the triangle. I believe that HTA, with its new leadership structure, is on the right track in its recent launch of a Destination Management Action Plans broadband initiative.

The Hawaii Tourism Strategic Plan: 2005-2015

Some movement towards government management of the industry began to occur in 1984 with substantive work carried out under the aegis of the State Department of Planning and Economic Development. This led to legislative action in 1991 amending the State Planning Act in a call for the development of a functional state tourism plan.

It took until 1998 to create the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The Hawaii Visitors Bureau, as a quasi-private entity, existed but was strictly for marketing. It was absorbed under the HTA umbrella and is now the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Beachgoers soak up the sun at Waikiki Beach during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beachgoers soak up the sun at Waikiki Beach during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In 1999, the HTA established Ke Kumu: Strategic Directions for Hawaii’s Tourism Industry. The plan sets out a policy directive for “sustainable tourism”. Ke Kumu’s account states “…it became clear…a more comprehensive and inclusive plan that addressed the needs and identified the responsibilities of all stakeholders in Hawaii’s tourism industry was needed.” The result was the Hawaii Tourism Strategic Plan: 2005-2015.

Stakeholder groups cited in the consultation plan were community organizations, residents and visitors, executive and legislative branches of government, federal, state and county government agencies, private sector organizations and businesses. The plan sets out the challenge: “…the Tourism Strategic Plan (TSP) will only succeed if all stakeholders participate and take on the tasks that fall within their areas of responsibility.

Thus, since 2005, there has been a clearly stated HTA intent in the Tourism Strategic Plan: 2005-2015 to support the nine goals of its vision which envisions a future in which tourism “honors the people and heritage of Hawai’i, value and perpetuate our natural and cultural resources, and foster mutual respect among all stakeholders. The plan’s nine goals included communications and outreach, Hawaiian culture, workforce development, safety and security, research and planning, natural resources, access and product development. .

So, despite all the time, effort and expense it took to formulate the TSP, why hasn’t it been more effective in addressing residents’ concerns? Because HTA did not have, and does not have, authority over many state and county agencies and several key private sector organizations whose cooperation is vital for the plan to work.

In other words, it will take the whole village to build the canoe to get us off the beach. And so far, getting everyone to the table has been an uphill struggle.

HTA 2021: Action plans for destination management

The pandemic has been kind of a blessing. This has forced a serious dialogue about the need to come up with a recovery plan. Under the new leadership of John DeFries and the HTA Board of Directors, the term destination management has taken on an added sense of urgency. There is an irony here that while post-pandemic dialogue has forced the recovery conversation, HTA’s response to the call for a recovery plan is actually a return to the table set by the original TSP rather than what might seem to some like a fresh start.

HTA hit the reset button while navigating a recovery framework with a new approach that mirrors some of the general concepts highlighted in the TSP. They referred to the new planning effort as Destination Management Action Plans.

The downturn in tourism during the pandemic has given the state an opportunity to rethink its management of the industry. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

HTA defines the overall objectives of the DMAP as follows: Rebuild, redefine and reset the direction of tourism over a three-year period through a collaborative process; engage the Hawaii visitor industry, communities and other sectors; identify areas of need that require management for proactive planning of mitigation measures.

As defined in HTA’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan, destination management includes “…attracting and educating responsible visitors; advocate solutions to overcrowded attractions, overburdened infrastructure and other tourism-related issues; and work with other responsible agencies to enhance the natural and cultural assets enjoyed by both residents and visitors to Hawaii.

HTA, in partnership with counties and respective island visitor bureaus, has developed Destination Management Action Plans for Kauai, Maui Nui (Maui, Molokai and Lanai) and the island of Hawaii. The Oahu DMAP is still ongoing. This work will contribute to efforts to relaunch and rebuild our tourism model by providing a 360 degree framework of government agencies, other institutions – and most importantly – community organizations representing residents.

Here is my suggestion. All the plans in the world are wasted if they sit on the shelf and the agency leaders are absent from the table. While HTA is to function as a facilitator of the DMAP process, it cannot be expected to take on the job of keeping the cats as has been the story with HTA trying to fully activate the original strategic plan of Hawaii tourism.

Governor David Ige is expected to consider creating a cabinet seat for the chief executive of HTA. Hawaii’s tourism industry impacts all major state agencies and the recovery cannot work without them. Having HTA represented at the Cabinet table provides a frequency of opportunities for the HTA CEO to lead the dialogue with heads of state departments and the governor.

All state agencies are important, but the four most important, in the case of tourism, are the Ministries of Transport, Lands and Natural Resources, Accounting and General Services, and Labor and Industrial Relations. Having HTA inside the circle rather than continuing as a spectator could go a long way in getting the canoe off the beach. Imua.