The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) moved into uncharted territory late last month when the state agency’s board of directors elected its new chairman: Aaron Sala, who’s been serving as the entity’s Hawaiian cultural representative since 2011.
Although the HTA board of directors has been headed in the past by chairs with Hawaiian ancestry — Douglas Chang first served as chairman in 2006, for example — that’s not happened often, and the designated Hawaiian cultural representative has never before been elected to the leadership role.
I asked Sala, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, if his recent election as HTA board chair was an important step forward for Hawaiians in the state’s largest industry.
“I’m going to be really honest with you,” he said. “I think it would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘No, this is not an important step,’ [but] my ego will also not allow me to make more of that than it is.”
Describing himself as “a worker bee,” Sala said he expects the new gig will require a tremendous amount of hard work.
“Part of me thinks I have to work even harder because I am the Hawaiian cultural chair and have now become the chair of the board, because it’s not part of the norm,” he explained. “You expect an industry executive to become chair of a board like this. So part of me thinks Aaron Sala has to work even harder to essentially play ball.”
Sala added that he believes the Hawaii tourism industry has matured to a point where it is now, in many instances, looking to return to its roots.
“I think those are important strides for the industry,” he said. “So for the Hawaiian cultural chair to become chair of the board is not so much an important step to me as much as it is the next step.”
Taking over for Ron Williams, the president and CEO of Atlantis Adventures, whose term as chair began in 2010, Sala said he’s intent on furthering the HTA’s cultural and community initiatives, such as its County Product Enrichment Program that helps fund unique Hawaii experiences for both visitors and residents across the destination’s six islands.
Sala also identified the continued importance of other HTA programs, like the Kukulu Ola program, which provides funding for statewide cultural events, and the Ma‘ema‘e initiative, a toolkit for HTA partners and marketers designed to increase Hawaiian language and cultural consistency across the destination’s branding efforts.
But the organization’s career development efforts focused on preparing the state’s next-generation tourism industry workforce and leadership seemed especially important to Sala.
“We want to reframe how we look at what is the tourism industry and what is tourism industry management,” he said. “So it’s not just about going into the industry and filling out a formula but really understanding the culture, the geography of the people and the place, and how those things inform decision-making within the industry.”
Working to create more opportunities for Hawaiians in a state tourism industry teeming with global hotel brands and international investment firm ownership groups also appears to be an important objective.
“Getting Hawaiians engaged and willing to collaborate [and] to come to the table is absolutely important,” he said. “I think our main focus, though, is getting locals who were born and bred here, regardless of ethnicity, to the table and having really open and dynamic discussions about what it means to be in the visitor industry here, learning from the past, celebrating our triumphs and really criticizing our failures.”
According to HTA research, visitors spent more than $14.5 billion across the Aloha State in 2013, and Sala hopes to shift more of those industry benefits to Hawaii’s local people in the future.
“We want to encourage locals who grew up here to reap the reward of the kinds of work we do in the industry,” he said.