By choosing a community-centered nonprofit to help craft Hawaii's tourism marketing, the state's tourism authority made a bold statement, severing a century-old relationship with the conventions and visitors bureau. It's sparking controversy, but this is the uneasy path to redefining the future of tourism.
The pandemic was cathartic for so many tourism-dependent destinations, for none perhaps more than Hawaii.
During the fall of 2020, nearly two-third of the state residents surveyed said they did not want visitors back on the islands, despite high unemployment from pandemic-sidelined local tourism workers. It was telling for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, or HTA, the state agency that conducted the survey, about the growing concerns over overtourism and how disconnected locals felt from being part of the tourism process.
Fast forward nearly two years later. In early June, the authority awarded a multiyear contract to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a local nonprofit, to help market the islands to the U.S. The contract is set to expire in December 2024 and is worth $34 million. One component of the contract is also destination management.
“What the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement did is put together a group of marketing organizations which complemented their ability to work with the community,” said Frank Haas, president of Marketing Management, a hospitality marketing consultancy that advised the council on its winning proposal and is a member of the transition team.
In the rough-and-tumble world of politics among tourism stakeholders within states, that the authority chose the group over the legacy contract winner, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, was incredibly significant, if not a historic shift. The bureau, which had done the marketing for the state for more than a century with strong support from the hotel and airline industries, is now protesting the decision. HTA extended its current contract until September 28 to sort out the protest.
The new partnership with the council represents Hawaii’s latest step toward implementing a “locals-first” approach toward tourism, a movement Skift highlighted for 2022 as a megatrend.
“What I’m cognizant of now is that communities are intently watching the visitor industry,” said Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO De Fries. “About 10 years ago my predecessor could enter into a room of industry colleagues and everyone patted each other on the back. Now when I walk into a space, I’m aware the community is there.”
In years past, the tourism industry was very insular, DeFries underscored, with suppliers like hotels and airlines the key stakeholders having the biggest voices at the table.
Residents now are emboldened to have a greater say on how tourism operates on the islands. This comes as Hawaii’s tourism industry continues to recover from the pandemic. In May 2022, 776, 375 visitors came to the Hawaiian Islands, a 92 percent recovery from prepandemic May 2019, according to the Hawaiian Tourism Authority.
As tourism resumes, a major focus will be to attract the high-spending but mindful visitor. The mindful visitor “wants to come to experience the culture, the activities and the attractions that are unique to Hawaii and respectful of sacred places and the natural environment,” Haas said. CNHA intends to use big data, analytics and other new tools to target this group and move away from mass marketing, according to Haas.
Another aspect of the shift towards a locals-first approach has been embracing so-called regenerative tourism. Preserving Hawaii’s natural resources and rich culture for future generations is a key focus for HTA. “The regenerative model is important to us at HTA because it mostly models our ancestral teaching as Native Hawaiians,” De Fries said.
Ensuring visitors don’t do harm is key. Visitors are educated on the concept of malama, meaning “to protect, nurture and care for,” according to De Fries. Examples include educating travelers to not leave hiking trails to trespass private property, littering or touching wildlife.
Over three-quarters of visitors from the U.S. East and U.S. West market said they have heard about the importance of caring and respecting Hawaii’s culture, people and environment, according to a visitor satisfaction survey in the first quarter this year by the state’s Department of Business Economic Development & Tourism (DBEDT), which the Hawaii Tourism Authority falls under.
Visitors are encouraged to give back to communities. Last year, the authority launched Mālama Hawaii. Under the program, visitors can volunteer in a community enhancement project and receive a special discount or a free night from a participating hotel. “Feedback we are getting is excellent,” De Fries said. “We are looking for ways to refine and scale it.”
But Mālama Hawaii has a long way to go. At least 85 percent of visitors from the U.S. West and U.S. East have said they do not recall specifically hearing or seeing Mālama Hawaii before or on their trip, according to DBEDT’s visitor satisfaction survey.
“Hawaii has the curse of a strong brand. When you say Hawaii to anyone around the world, they say palm trees, beautiful beaches and wonderful weather,” said Haas. “That is ingrained in the heads of people around the world. To change that takes resources, effort and time. It’s actually a pretty big task.“
To achieve its ambitions, the Hawaii Tourism Authority faces a formidable obstacle: a hostile legislature. Last year, the Hawaiian legislature, after overriding the governor’s veto, passed a bill that reduced the tourism authority’s budget from $79 million to $60 million, removed its state procurement exemption and eliminated its dedicated source of funding: the transient accommodation tax.
The tourism authority has had to lean on funds from last year and federal money. This year, the legislature passed operating appropriation funds to the agency in a capital improvement projects bill. The governor has said he will veto it and reallocate money from federal funds again to the tourism authority. There remains the possibility the legislature will override the governor’s veto like it did last year.
Nobody said defining new models for tourism would come easy.
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Photo credit: Kauai, Hawaii Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash