Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

After leading the state's destination marketing and tourism coordinating efforts for 22 years, the Hawaii Tourism Authority is at a crossroads. 

A few months ago, the Aloha State was on track to eclipse 2019's record total of more than 10 million visitors, airlift to the islands was at an all-time high, and popular destinations like the North Shore of Kauai and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park had recovered from 2018 natural disasters. There were some signs of tumult within the industry. A 2019 survey indicated resident sentiment toward tourism was declining as nuisances like traffic increased while perceived benefits decreased. As the visitor totals have steadily climbed since 2009, the percentage of residents saying tourism has brought "more benefits than problems" has declined from 80% to 58%. Additionally, while the number of visitors was at a record high, spending per visitor and inflation-adjusted revenue from tourism have not kept pace. 

Now, Hawaii's tourism industry has been shuttered since late March, and the president and CEO of HTA, Chris Tatum, announced he will retire on Aug. 31 after holding the position for less than two years. 

Whoever steps in to lead the HTA will have work to do to smooth over the agency's relationship with the legislature, which holds the purse strings. After a critical audit was released in February 2018, the state Senate threatened to slash the HTA budget before backing down following a complete leadership overhaul, including the departure of president George Szigeti and other top executives. Just prior to Tatum's retirement announcement, Honolulu Civil Beat reported the HTA commissioned an investigation into state Sen. George Wakai's treatment of agency staff, concluding in an April 2019 report that Wakai "has engaged in harassing and intimidating behavior towards HTA staff that has disrupted work and the agency, and may have contributed toward mental stress."

"This is like being a war-time president," Keith Vieira, a former Starwood Hotels and Resorts executive who runs his own hospitality consultancy, said of the situation the new HTA leader will enter.

"I'd like to see someone aggressive who is willing to take on the tough battles, grow the visitor spend per day," he said. "They have to go find them, and that will cost money. But in some ways this is good timing, an opportunity to bring in that person who will find a better balance between industry needs, community needs and legislative needs.

"One part is having the industry background and understanding leisure and other tourism markets," Vieira said. "The second part is understanding the legislative process and relationships. You have to be able to handle the Senate and other lawmakers, you have to manage massive egos. It's always been that way."

In the short term, Vieira would like to see new leadership come in quickly to help plan for reopening and facilitate the process moving forward.

"There are some 200,000 people unemployed since the crisis, and the loss of tax revenue has been huge," he said. "I think the loss will really be felt in the second half of the year. The HTA head needs to work with the government to have a safety protocol for hotels and other businesses. Temperature checks, room cleaning protocols -- all that has to be in place. The hotels are saying they need a month's notice to get ready for reopening, but we still don't know when that will be."

When the HTA was established in 1998, 38% of the transient accommodations tax went to tourism promotion and programs. Today, the tax brings in approximately $600 million annually, with the bulk going to the state general fund and HTA receiving less than 15%. Many within the tourism industry say some of those funds going to the general fund could be targeted at improving community resources that would benefit tourists and residents, and also better inform residents about the benefits of tourism and the revenue generated.

Hospitality consultant and former Aqua-Aston CEO Elizabeth Churchill would like to see a female head of HTA with several key characteristics, including a desire to stay in the position for a few years.

"I think it should be someone with a wide swath of experiences across all aspects of the industry," Churchill said. "Someone with a deep and profound understanding of the tourism market and all it encompasses. ... It should be someone who comes to the table with fresh ideas and a deep connection to Hawaii, its sense of place and all of the cultures involved. They should have a long track record of bringing people together and implementing plans."

Churchill would like to see more resources put toward understanding the community's complaints and demands in regards to tourism, and then implementing plans and campaigns that enhance the quality of life for residents, thus boosting sentiment toward the industry.

"We need someone apolitical," she added. "We need someone whose entire career is built on transparency, communication, and accountability."

Hawaii currently has the third highest unemployment rate in the country, and the pressure from residents for politicians to produce a more detailed reopening plan is likely to build in coming months. The federal Cares Act contributions to unemployment payments will end July 31, and the restrictions on airlines that accepted Cares grants will expire Sept. 30. At that point, the economic pain could be more acute for many workers, and the clamor to reopen the industry, or boost numbers, is likely to grow.

Vieira says the current crisis can also be an opportunity to shift the momentum on resident perceptions of the tourism industry by using the shutdown to reimagine how congested areas and popular attractions function.  

"Some communities and sites have been overrun with the spread of vacation rentals and social media giving people more information, and I think this is a chance to manage some of those things better," Vieira said. "We can use technology, reservation systems, and better management to use our resources better and create a better experience."

Churchill worries with no reopening plan as of yet, and without a leader in place at the HTA, coordination will suffer and an opportunity could be missed.  

"On an optimistic note, I think what we're going through with the pandemic as well as the civil rights demonstrations across the country offers an incredible platform for Hawaii to reevaluate the way it does tourism and turn a new page in the way we've viewed tourism and how to do things better going forward," she said. "This is an opportunity to reboot tourism in the state of Hawaii. Not everything has to be radical, but we should look at the changes that will be beneficial not only for our future visitors but especially our residents. "


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