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The authors of a new University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization (UHERO) brief “believe that there is an opportunity to reform the way we manage Destination Hawaiʻi to get better results.”

According to Paul Brewbaker, Frank Haas and James Mak, public pressure has been mounting on the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) to shift its focus from mostly marketing to destination management to mitigate tourism’s negative impacts on the community. HTA’s 2020–2025 Strategic Plan states that “This is the first strategic plan developed while HTA is re-balancing our attention from mainly marketing to greater emphasis on destination management.” In the past, HTA responded to community concerns about tourism’s negative impacts only on “an informal basis.”

Hawaiʻi has a long history of community-based tourism planning going back to the 1970s. According to the authors, the problem has been implementation. The biggest hurdle has been the lack of effective coordination among tourism’s many and diverse stakeholders.

HTA does seem to have statutory basis for managing Destination Hawaiʻi via Chapter 201B-3 Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes. But the language that gives HTA authority to coordinate tourism’s stakeholders to work together is weak. A stronger governance structure is called for.

Destination Management Action Plan

In support of the broad 2020–2025 Strategic Plan, HTA produced a Destination Management Action Plan (DMAP) for each island to “rebuild, redefine and reset tourism’s direction” over a three-year period. The DMAPs were shaped by steering committees representing diverse stakeholders on each island. They lay out specific actions—consistent with the broad goals established in the strategic plan—for HTA to undertake in collaboration with other tourism stakeholders. HTA calls it a regenerative model of tourism.

The DMAPs are essentially ad hoc “to do” lists. Some proposed actions may be ill advised perhaps because they were not based on thorough research. Implementation of the actions and the 200 sub-actions in the DMAPs are divided into three phases. For example, Action A of the Oʻahu DMAP aims to “decrease the total number of visitors to Oʻahu to a manageable level.” Most sub-actions require more than one phase to complete.

To assist in the implementation of DMAP initiatives, HTA solicited bids for a single contractor to manage both U.S. marketing and destination management. Combining these two functions recognizes the interplay between the marketing message for Hawaiʻi and the management of the place. The marketing part of the request for proposal aims to overhaul Hawaiʻi’s brand to attract a different type of visitor to Hawaiʻi; the destination management part aims to mitigate the negative spillover effects of tourism.

The contract was awarded to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, but the award was challenged by the Hawaiʻi Visitors and Convention Bureau. Nonetheless, HTA has begun to implement the DMAPs.

Opportunity to reform Destination Hawaiʻi for better results

The authors argue that there is an opportunity to reform the way we manage Destination Hawaiʻi to get better results. They consider a suggestion that a position be created for HTA’s CEO in the governor’s Cabinet to offer more opportunities for him/her to access heads of other state departments and agencies. They note that if HTA is elevated to the cabinet level it may lose even more of its autonomy.

There is another approach. House Bill 1785 in 2022 would have required the Legislative Reference Bureau to study and evaluate alternative tourism governance systems. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass. The authors urge that it be reintroduced in the next legislative session, with adequate funding to support a high-quality study.

Hawaiʻi is not alone in grappling with tourism-related governance issues and the state could benefit from examining other models from around the world. In the meantime, strong leadership from the incoming governor is essential, according to the authors.

“The governor has the power to bring the department/agency heads to work together,” the authors said. “The governor needs to develop legislative packages (and budgets) derived from some of the best ideas from the DMAPs with input from state agencies. HHawaiʻi is embarking on a new direction in tourism recognizing the need for better management. We have an opportunity to create a governance structure that can achieve it.”

Read more on UHERO’s website. UHERO is housed in UH Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences.

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