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Column: Slashing agency’s budget, focus would harm tourism’s future

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By L. Richard “Rick” Fried, Jr.

Posted April 21, 2021

Richard
Figure 1 L. Richard Fried, Jr. chairs the Hawaii Tourism Authority board of directors.

There are two bills up for final consideration by state legislators —House Bill 862 and House Bill 200 — that will have a disastrous impact on the future of Hawaii’s tourism industry and the state’s economy.

These bills will weaken the delicate balance between tourism and the community’s overall wellbeing, without satisfactorily addressing the contentious effects that tourism has had on communities statewide. Maybe the most significant impact on diminishing resident sentiment toward tourism is the proliferation of illegal vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods. Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) believes this needs to be controlled but would have no input if HTA is limited to purely marketing as these bills would do. Visitors at illegal vacation rentals spend an average of 20% less than visitors at hotels.

I have had the privilege of serving on the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s (HTA) board of directors for the past seven years, and as board chairman for four years. During that time, I have seen Hawaii tourism gain renewed strength and surpass all expectations, and then suddenly crash into a heap because of the pandemic.

The board made significant changes over the past year to put HTA on a new way forward to help tourism succeed post-pandemic, while also leading the industry to protect the qualities vitally important to residents statewide.

The most important decision we made was hiring John De Fries as president and CEO. His sense of spirit, his decency and fairness to one and all, and his commitment to implement a clear vision for change to fulfilling a sustainable, regenerative model for tourism is inspiring.

With John at the helm, HTA is in the best possible position to balance the economic realities of the visitor industry with the more important needs of how tourism needs to respect and honor the demands of residents and communities wanting to preserve our way of life.

Should these bills be passed as they stood Monday, John and HTA will be crippled in trying to address tourism’s current and future challenges. HTA’s role will be limited to brand marketing only. The community doesn’t want that.

Who will be responsible for leading our biggest industry and ensuring that Hawaiian culture, our natural environment and community-based projects are shared honorably and respectfully as part of tourism’s vision? It won’t be HTA if these bills are passed in their current form.

HTA recently published three Destination Management Action Plans (DMAP) that were created by the residents and counties of Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island, with Oahu’s DMAP currently in progress. If these bills pass as written, there will be no HTA funding or staff to implement the identified actions geared toward addressing community impacts, perpetuating the Hawaiian culture, and preserving natural resources.

Funding for HTA’s natural resources programs will be eliminated and the responsibility to provide programs supporting Hawaiian culture will be moved to another state agency. No other agency has the knowledge or experience to do this.

In addition, HTA’s Tourism Research Division will be gutted. The valuable research data relied on by businesses in Hawaii and around the world will be eliminated. Sadly, funding to support HTA’s safety and security programs, including the essential Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii (VASH) will be axed. I have seen firsthand what an incredible beneficial impact VASH has had on visitors who have been in serious accidents or lost a loved one.

Tourism continues to be Hawaii’s economic engine. Before the pandemic, visitor spending totaled $17.75 billion in 2019 and generated more than $2 billion in state taxes. Until our state’s economy diversifies, tourism and destination management is needed and HTA is the catalyst.

Hawaii needs HTA now more than ever to manage tourism sustainably. These bills prevent that from happening, with residents and communities left to wonder who is in charge and will take on this responsibility.

L. Richard Fried, Jr. chairs the Hawaii Tourism Authority board of directors.