On Thursday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority was officially excluded from the state budget and now has to request funds from the state’s budgeting and finance department. The governor and legislature will vet the funding requests, putting the agency under their scrutiny.
“We understand that our spending will be more scrutinized, and we recognize that we have a lot of work ahead,” said John De Fries, president and CEO of HTA. The funds for the agency will come from the $200 million lawmakers set aside to address a variety of deferred maintenance projects, a lawmaker told Reuters.
During the legislative process, HTA requested a $75 million budget for this year and a $60 million budget for next year. Before the session ended, it was almost left with only enough funds to repair the convention center roof, keep the lights on and retain staff. The new funding agreement was between legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor.
With greater control over the purse strings, government officials will make sure the agency deprioritizes marketing and focus more on destination management. In a statement, Governor Josh Green said,”it is important that we figure out how we can shift this agency from its focus of marketing tourism to more strategically looking at destination management that would attract and educate responsible visitors.”
The agency has seen its autonomy and funding stripped away by the Hawaiian legislature over the last few years. Residents have been frustrated with tourism’s impacts on their quality of life and environment. Acting on their behalf, lawmakers have cut its budget, removed its transient accommodation source, removed its state procurement exemption and demanded more destination management work.
To mitigate overtourism and service residents, the agency incorporated a locals-first approach, which included a pivot away from mass tourism marketing and taking on destination management responsibilities.
One major move toward the approach was the award of a $34 million marketing and destination management contract to a native community non-profit over the hotel industry-backed Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which has historically marketed Hawaii. Due to legal battles, the contract was stalled, then a government official’s last minute interference canceled the contract. The agency had to restart the process.
Jumping off the contract award debacle, lawmakers pushed a bill to dissolve the Hawaii Tourism Authority and replace it with an office focused more on destination management and less on marketing. The bill came close to passage but was deferred last week due to lawmakers not reaching consensus on it.