A new Hawaii tourism chief steps in at a critical time for the Aloha State

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Kauai Hawaii
Before the pandemic, the island of Kauai was grappling with overtourism. Photo Credit: Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock

John De Fries took the reins of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) one month, almost to the day, before this week's planned launch of a pretravel program that is crucial to the state's tourism reboot.

"It's a vertical learning curve," De Fries said. "Not only for me, frankly, but for the entire industry."

The program, which would enable visitors to bypass a strict 14-day quarantine if they test negative for coronavirus within 72 hours of arrival, would be the state's first major step toward reviving its economy. Among U.S. states, only Nevada is more dependent on tourism, but Hawaii's isolation has become a factor, as well. Nevada's biggest feeder market is the California drive market, but the Islands depend on long-haul flights to deliver 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 the HTA, De Fries has centered his agenda around the concept of malama, meaning "to nurture" or "care for."

"We need to malama one another as local people just the same way we malama the ocean and the forest," he said. "Because in our business, we're going to have to malama the visitor, and in turn we're going to have to educate the visitor about how they malama us. 

"I'm intent on malama becoming the sister to aloha. Aloha is kind of a feeling that you can express that is much more subtle, yet powerful. Malama is a verb, it's action."

And Hawaii needs action. After a record 10.4 million visitors in 2019, the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization estimates 2020 numbers will be 73% below last year's mark.

"De Fries really hit on everything we were looking for," said Ben Rafter, HTA board member and CEO of Springboard Hospitality. "He has an enthusiasm for Hawaii tourism and a vision to evolve tourism to be different and healthy.

"The reality is that if tourism isn't healthy, the economy of the state is not healthy."

Carriers are scheduled to connect a combined 29 city pairs between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland during the week of Oct. 12. The buildup is slated to reach 41 routes by the week of Nov. 2 and 44 by Thanksgiving week, three weeks later.

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In his first weeks, De Fries has held meetings with the HTA's marketing partner organizations for mainland U.S., Canada, South Korea, Japan and Oceania. The state's tourism site, GoHawaii.com, hosts a flowchart for testing procedures, and the Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau is working on a "Malama Hawaii" campaign offering one night's complimentary stay in exchange for participation in a volunteer activity.

De Fries' chief concerns for the pretravel testing program are the quality and availability of testing and the wild card of human behavior. He has reviewed the safety protocols from various industry associations, including hotels and restaurants, and called them "incredibly high." But he added that it is crucial for Hawaii to keep its Covid-19 infection rate stable, or people will not risk traveling to the Islands.

"The system is going to be tested, and we have to be paying attention and be responsive to it," he said. "The standards set by each industry are just the starting line, and the hotels, restaurants, airlines and other businesses have to be committed to exceeding it, refining it and making it better."

Echoing the sentiment, Hawaii Tourism and Lodging Association president Mufi Hannemann said the industry is prepared, but he expects some trial and error. 

"It will take a lot of legwork to restore trust with our partners and the traveling public as we compete for folks who want to travel in 2020," he said. 

Orbiting on the periphery of the crisis is a larger reckoning for Hawaii tourism. Prior to the pandemic, surveys showed residents souring on tourism in the face of overcrowding and higher housing costs.

"I also have responsibility as a community advocate," De Fries said. "The truth is that everything is bricks and mortar until the community is involved. So it's incumbent on HTA to help redefine this notion of 'we' as the industry and the community together, seamlessly." 

In the last few years, elected officials, community organizations and industry analysts have argued that the HTA needed to address destination management as much as destination marketing. To address areas of potential overcrowding or conflicts between visitors and residents, the HTA is leading a process to develop plans with a range of state agencies as well as with 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 be managing tourists better, and we are not going to be back to 2019 numbers anytime soon. This is a chance to take a step back and take a look at things from a logistics perspective."

De Fries will mark his 100th day on the job on Christmas Day, a time when Hawaii is typically packed with holiday visitors. It will be a success, he said, if he has instilled and operationalized the "malama mindset" by then. 

"I have confidence in the people of Hawaii and communities to be innovative and creative, and I need to help preserve space for them to do that," he said. "The communities will define what the future of Hawaii tourism will look like." 

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