Are we on the verge of a historic change in state tourism policy?

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Photo by Charley Myers

By Keli’i Akina

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It looks like we could be on the verge of a new tourism policy for Hawaii.

Legislators have been dickering this past week over how much money the state tourism agency should receive and under what conditions. Ultimately, however, the state Hawaii Tourism Authority might receive no funding at all.

Which would be ideal.

As Allison Schaefers reported yesterday in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hawaii legislators strongly disagreed over two bills that would fund the HTA.

One group disliked the micromanaging that HB1785 would impose on the HTA, while other lawmakers opposed the creation of a new special fund and commission that were central to SB775.

Both bills passed each chamber, but neither actually made it to a conference committee hearing. As of today, HB1785 is dead, while SB775 can still be revived if the Senate agrees to the House’s amendments by May 5.

With no appropriation, the fate of the HTA is uncertain. The House and Senate have effectively defunded the HTA by leaving it out of the final version of this year’s budget bill.

If this turns out to be the final statement on the HTA’s future, no tax dollars will be spent on destination management or advertising, and the industry will be on its own. Instead of propping up an agency that either micromanages tourism or uses tax dollars to promote it, the state government will be out of the tourism business altogether.

To be clear, defunding the HTA should not be misconstrued as opposition to tourism. Rather, it is a philosophical statement about the state’s practice of supporting and promoting — and increasingly “managing” — one specific commercial enterprise over others.

No matter how important tourism might be to our economy, it is not the state’s job to be favoring specific companies or business sectors. Moreover, the tourism industry, especially, is quite capable of paying its own bills, and has been for a very long time.

Just last month, U.S. visitor arrivals to Hawaii came roaring back after two years of coronavirus lockdowns, and the tourist numbers are sure to go higher once visitors from Japan are back in the mix.

Of course, given the statements made to the Star-Advertiser by tourism officials about the importance of the HTA, the Legislature might not be finished with state-funded tourism. However, if funding is restored, that would present us with the irony of the state promoting visitor arrivals even as the counties attempt to limit or “manage” them.

Whatever the Legislature decides, Hawaii’s contradictory approach to tourism is not viable in the long-term.

As my colleague Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii executive vice president, said yesterday in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the Legislature has been asking the wrong questions about the HTA’s future.

“The real question,” he said, “is whether the HTA should be funded at all, since it would save tax dollars and foster economic sustainability to let the tourism industry pay for its own advertising and management.”
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Keli’i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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