Hawaii Tourism Authority: New name, same problems?

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By Keli‘i Akina

Another year, another attempt to reform the Hawaii Tourism Authority. 

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Last year, the question was whether the Legislature should defund the HTA, which was established in 1998 to promote tourism to the islands. 

This year, some legislators have put forth a bill, SB1522, that would replace the HTA with a new “Office of Destination Management.”

Keli‘i Akina

But since the HTA has spent the last year or so shifting its mission from tourism promotion to “destination management” — or “managing tourism” — anyway, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the proposed new agency would still be the HTA but with a slight makeover. 

For example, the new Office of Destination Management would be tasked with “growing” tourism, marketing Hawaii as a destination, analyzing visitor data, managing the Hawaii Convention Center and promoting events. 

How is this substantially different from the purpose and mission of the HTA?

The biggest distinction between the two seems to be rhetorical. The bill that would establish the ODM uses words such as “holistic” and “regenerative tourism.” That sounds nice enough, but how that would translate to real world action is vague.

One advantage the proposed ODM would have over the HTA is a generous allocation of $100 million to help get it rolling. HTA’s budget last year was about $60 million, which it was lucky to get at the last minute amid calls that it be defunded. 

However, for those who still would like to see a better accounting of how the HTA spends its money, this significantly larger amount of money would not be good news. Simply changing the HTA’s name to the Office of Destination Management would really be no more than giving the agency a pass for its mistakes and letting it start over without any meaningful reform.

In a strange way, the bill that would repeal the HTA and create the ODM perfectly reflects the conflicting feelings our state has about tourism. Most of us agree it is a vital industry, but we worry about its impact. We need to promote tourism, but we don’t want to attract the “wrong” tourists. We don’t like the way that the HTA has been performing, but we’re afraid to get rid of it.

When you’re not happy with what you have but don’t know what you want, you end up with a bill like SB1522.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: Don’t replace the HTA, just defund it. 

As a matter of principle, taxpayer money should not be used to bolster tourism or any other specific industry. This is not to suggest that tourism is not important to our state. As I said in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in January 2023: “Tourism is an extremely valuable part of the Hawaii economy, and it’s important that we market Hawaii as a tourist destination at the highest level.” 

But promoting tourism, I continued, “would be better left in the hands of the tourism industry itself.”

And in fact, the hotels, airlines, and many other industry players invest millions of dollars every year to attract visitors to the islands.” Not only that, they are in a better position to gauge the results of their efforts.

As a practical matter, using taxpayer dollars to supplement what the private sector is already spending on promotion might be one of the reasons we have the “overtourism” that so many Hawaii residents complain about. 

At the same time, there is research suggesting that the benefits of state-funded tourism promotion diminish as expenditures increase. In addition, state-funded tourism promotion in areas that already have high levels of tourism is associated with declines in employment.

No matter how you slice it, government involvement in the tourism sector seems like a losing proposition.

So what’s in a name? Whether we call it the Hawaii Tourism Authority or the Office of Destination Management, it would still be basically the same organization with the same unaddressed issues.
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Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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