HTA doesn’t need to try quite so hard

Those promoting tourism in Hawaii are facing a difficult balancing act.

First, Kauai was hit with biblical flooding in mid-April that destroyed homes, vehicles and roads. It left people homeless, claimed the lives of animals and damaged businesses and homes. The North Shore is bouncing back but faces a long recovery.

Then, Kilauea volcano began erupting and sending lava flows that destroyed homes, vehicles and roads. It spewed ash plumes and dangerous fumes into the air. Add in rat lungworm cases and the beginning of hurricane season, there is the potential for a big downturn in tourism.

Such things are not what motivates a person to want to visit here. While many may believe that’s a good thing and will help ease the traffic problems on Kauai, others point out this island’s economy hinges on tourism. If people stopped coming here and spending money, it would eventually lead to lost jobs, and the impact would ripple through the community. Leave no doubt, tourism is key to how many of us survive.

So, the Hawaii Tourism Authority has been facing a dilemma. If it doesn’t continue to do its job, mainly to entice people to travel here, then the economy could suffer. If it continues to urge people to come here, despite the volcano dangers on the Big Island, and even the inability to access some of Kauai’s North Shore, it can appear insensitive to those who have been impacted by the flooding and volcano. It can come across that to HTA, money is what matters.

Now, we know tourism is hurting. That’s to be expected considering all that has happened and is happening now. But as many people like to say, now is not the time to panic. Remain calm. Take a breath.

That’s why a recent HTA press release made us cringe, a little. A few quotes from it attributed to Gov. David Ige:

“Travel is safe to the Hawaiian Islands.”

“Visitors can book their trips comfortable in the knowledge that their vacation experience will provide all the enjoyment they expect when coming to our beautiful islands.”

“Visitors to Hawaii can be assured that the volcanic activity is having no effect whatsoever on the other islands.”

“All of Hawaii is open for business and welcoming visitors with the hospitality, aloha, warmth and picturesque settings visitors seek in our islands.”

We’re not saying these statements are not accurate. We are saying HTA doesn’t need to try so hard, right now, to boost tourism. It has done its job well over the years. People on the Mainland are well aware of Hawaii and all it has to offer, thanks to HTA’s efforts.

While again, we are well aware of tourism’s importance to Hawaii’s economic success, this might be a time to notch things back a bit rather than sending out press releases stating that all is mostly well in Hawaii and there are almost no reasons not to still come here. People planning vacations usually do their own homework before heading out. If anyone was planning to cancel a trip here due to volcano activity, it’s unlikely they’ll change their mind because our governor assured them they’ll be safe and have a good time. And it’s even more unlikely someone would come to Hawaii after being assured there’s nothing to worry about. It might make them suspicious or even raise more concerns.

One could also argue that despite the best of intentions and the best of research and the best of scientists, trying to predict what a volcano is going to do is difficult, to put it nicely. Kilauea has been an active volcano since 1983 and is one of Hawaii’s most popular attractions. That there is a volcano is not surprising. That it’s spewing out so much lava is. We all knew this could happen. And we should certainly plan and prepare, do our best to be ready for the natural disasters that come our way, such as these latest eruptions

So, we can all agree that our concerns are for the residents in the affected communities. Let’s give them all the support they need. If our friends on the Mainland are concerned about what’s happening in Hawaii and don’t come here, that’s OK. We’ll survive. Remember, Hawaii is the land of resilient people. And tourism, too, will bounce back. People love Hawaii. They will come here. If not tomorrow, then soon. We know they will be back. They will keep coming. Hawaii is too beautiful, too energizing, for people to stay away.

  1. harryoyama2 May 24, 2018 6:01 am Reply

    Maybe HTA salaries should be performance based, if they cannot convince tourists to continue visiting these islands, then we should dock their pay as well, since it is also negatively effecting us.

  2. PauloT May 24, 2018 7:49 am Reply

    Yes let’s give our disaster zones a rest from tourism. That I agree with. What I don’t agree with is that the HTA is still necessary at all, or at least in it’s current form. People on the mainland do not need the HTA to let them know that Hawaii is a great vacation destination.

    As far as “If people stopped coming here and spending money, it would eventually lead to lost jobs, and the impact would ripple through the community. Leave no doubt, tourism is key to how many of us survive.” Is that our choice? Rampant tourism overload or none at all? People will not stop coming here if the HTA were to stop promoting us. TAT tax funds, used to continually increase the visitor numbers, is a waste of money and should be used to benefit the islands they were accrued from. But it still would not be enough to cover visitor wear and tear. We do not need a 35% increase in tourism which is approximately what we are experiencing. Not NO TOURISM, just not this much tourism. The HTA is wasting our money on this unending promotion for more visitors year over year without end. They will still come. It’s not all or nothing. Can we wake up?

  3. Charlie Chimknee May 24, 2018 9:23 am Reply

    Aloha Kakou,

    The article above is very well written, but who wrote it?

    It seems that the Hawaii Tourism Authoirty (HTA) should be letting people know that while there is one island in Hawaii named Hawaii, that it is locally called the “Big Island” and not to confuse the island of Hawaii with the whole state of Hawaii, as some may think lava is flowing over the whole state. Same for Kaua’i North Shore is not our whole island.

    When our tourism, now our life blood, is badly impacted with FAKE NEWS, people lose jobs, home and car payments, etc. It can be devastating.

    After Iniki, KCCC select prisoners were released to aid families and friends, and it would be a generous gift to send prisoners now to clean, repair, demolish that which is unrepairable. Paying their debt to society?

    Insurance companies are the mega rich, yet they sell Homeowner policies that EXCLUDE flood, tsunami, and wind driven water coverage. Those EXCLUSIONS save them money but also ruins lives.

    And we hear the National Flood,insurance Program is out of $$$ ? Who manages that?

    Insurance companies should be made to include these vital coverages.

    Can we borrow prisoners from other islands that are trusted to help and return to their prison with a reduced sentence as a mahalo?

    Without help, how do you clean 4’ of water damage and 6” of mud out of your house. National Guard?


  4. Scott Foster May 24, 2018 11:30 am Reply

    Many compelling recommendations and the research & reasoning behind them about marketing Hawaii were presented and discussed by four respected local economics and marketing veterans during a luncheon forum on Wednesday, May 2nd. The event was presented by the Hawaii Economic Association (HEA) at Honolulu’s Plaza Club and I was lucky enough to have a front row seat.

    Obviously good friends, the four scheduled and began to collaborate on the presentation after the recent problems with the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) became public to at least begin to formulate a succinct plan of action.

    Part of the 2016 HTA mission statement reads, “… to strategically manage Hawai‘i tourism in a sustainable manner” and many do not believe this is happening as it could, should and indeed must.

    I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg here and the following is from my written notes and the group’s excellent handouts. For a more thorough grasp of the issue, I’ve included a copy of the April 18, 2018, Civilbeat article by tourism marketing veteran Frank Haas: “Tourism Industry Needs Better Planning, Not Budget Cuts: The state needs to invest in marketing that strategically attracts the visitors who contribute to real economic impact.” It’s a basic primer on exactly what changes need to take place at HTA.

    Moderated by Frank Haas, President of Marketing Management, the panel included:
    – Paul Brewbaker – Principal, TZ Economics
    – John Knox – Principal, John M. Knox & Associates, Inc.
    – James (“Jim”) Mak – Professor Emeritus, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a Research Fellow at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO).

    The HEA Web invitation reads, “The stress that tourism puts on local communities, social structures, and natural resources is increasing dramatically. Tackling these problems with the same old tactics may not be working anymore. This panel discussion will highlight the ways that tourism has reached a critical point in its development and suggests some shifts in thinking to respond to Hawaii tourism’s 21st century challenges.”

    On a note of subtle humor during lunch was the projected image of the April 27, 2018, Star-Advertiser front page with the bold headline, “THEY KEEP COMING!” Haas later noted that he was concerned that language in the article such as “juggernaut” and “rampaging” gives the wrong perception of Hawaii’s vital tourism marketing. Aside, one sentence in the Star-Advertiser was, “The tourism juggernaut is the pride of HTA” (the Hawaii Tourism Authority).
    The program was presented in two sections with a short Q&A after; 1) “What is the Question? and 2) “What is the answer?”

    Haas views the marketing of Hawaii as “a mosaic” and noted that the 2005-2015 HTA marketing plan he helped author contained nine key elements and “all had to be performed together in order for it to effectively work.” Haas noted that this has never happened as originally planned.

    James (“Jim”) Mak was equally direct and to the point saying, “Overtourism is the very opposite of sustainable tourism; Overcrowding is bad for business; HTA must shift from tourism promotion to better management of tourism,” and “Hawaii residents want HTA to mind the store.”

    Mac is one of the authors of the current research report “Ready or not, Hawaii is set for more growth” now posted on the Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) Web page <>. A free public summary pdf and a more in-depth paid version are there.

    Economist Paul Brubaker is uniquely able to present columns of calculations in a humorous and informative manner; a rare talent. The following points are taken from Paul’s handouts:
    – Hawaii tourism has yet to return to its absolute economic position of the 1980s (30 years)
    – long-term political predisposition (since 1980) to restrain tourism capacity growth.
    Aside, Brubaker’s comment “We can’t build a wall” brought down the house with laughter and polite applause.
    – The strategic question for next generation is whether Hawaii’s only plausibly material export will return as growth engine. 2020-2050 or simply consume public resources.
    – More visitors, not more dollars.
    – Paul contends there are fewer hotel rooms now in Hawaii than in the 1980s and attributes this to a variety of factors including condo and timeshare conversions.

    John Knox’ handout and comments were particularly revealing. While somewhat differing from island to island, the results of a “Selected Hawaii Tourism Authority Resident Survey Question (2010-2017” conducted by the OmniTrak Group for the Hawaii Tourism Authority present a clear picture of the public’s growing negative opinions about tourism with questions such as:

    – Funds should be spent to promote tourism in Hawaii
    – Tourism is a major cause of traffic
    – Tourism responsible for higher living costs
    – My island’s economy is too dependent on tourism
    – Tourism is consistent with community values
    – Tourism presents Native Hawaiian Culture authentically
    – I feel I have a voice in my island’s tourism development decisions

    This informative document is on the HTA web site under “research.”

    Frank Haas later said, “There are a myriad of longstanding issues that have been identified that are impacting Hawai‘i tourism. Identifying the issues is a critical first step, but the bigger issue will be developing structure and strategies that will lead to real solutions after years of neglect. Now that many of these issues are “on the table” it would be an opportune time to reconvene some thought leaders who can look outside of the conventional wisdom and find innovative solutions to these problems.”

    With the recent groundswell of complaints about overtourism (visitor count now approaching 10 million a year) and the many negative impacts on Hawaii’s oceans, aina, drinking water, garbage disposal, waste water processing, crowded roads and highways, dirty beaches and with the many low paying jobs and our nearly hopeless affordable housing situation, a seeming groundswell of Hawaii residents are demanding some immediate changes.

    Dr. Sumner LaCroix from the Department of Economics, University of Hawaii also joined the lively discussion.

    Although the panel covered a lot of territory and presented many possible solutions during the 90-minute event, many of the approximately 80 attendees left wanting more. The group is being encouraged to tape a television broadcast in order to get their important observations and at least a few immediate solutions out to the general public, Hawaii’s elected officials including the governor, and to the new Hawaii Tourism Authority board of directors and their next board chair.

    Like it or not, Hawaii remains dependent on a vibrant visitor industry and seemingly all the pieces of the mosaic are there — except the political will to change. All concerned have their work cut out for them on that point.

    The following op-ed on tourism by Frank Haas was published by on April 18, 2018:
    Community Voice
    Tourism Industry Needs Better Planning, Not Budget Cuts
    The state needs to invest in marketing that strategically attracts the visitors who contribute to real economic impact.
    By Frank Haas
    Watching the evolution of Hawaii tourism over time has been like watching a kid grow up.
    We’ve had our growth spurts. We’ve skinned our knees a few times. We’ve even had some awkward phases.

    It seems that now we’re at that point where, like a middle-aged patient, we’ve scheduled an exam and the doctor says “you’d better take care of yourself.”

    We probably need to go on a diet. Given all the angst in the media and at the Legislature about tourism, we probably need to lower our blood pressure, too. And like any patient looking to achieve “wellness” we certainly need to make some serious lifestyle changes.

    What are the symptoms … and what do we need to change?

    For one thing, we’re suffering from anemia. If you look at the performance of the visitor industry in terms of visitor days and arrivals and compare them to real (inflation adjusted) visitor spending, we find that we’re hosting a lot more visitors and not much — if any — increase in real economic impact.

    Since 2005, visitor arrivals have grown 25.7 percent and visitor days have grown 24.1 percent while inflation-adjusted visitor spending has been about flat. In other words, impacts have increased but benefits haven’t.

    We’ve said that we want to increase visitor spending faster than visitor arrivals, but that hasn’t happened yet.

    Can that change? Yes. But only if we make substantial changes.

    We know who high-spending visitors are — and they’re not just the rich. The meetings, incentive travel, bridal and honeymoon, LGBTQ, golf and other markets are known to be high spenders that are aligned with what Hawaii has to offer.
    If marketing can be focused on significantly increasing the percentages of these groups in the visitor mix, it can impact real spending.

    Many of these markets (certainly golf and bridal/honeymoon) have, in fact, declined or been stable as a percent of total visitors. Changing those dynamics will require significantly more investment.

    We haven’t been good about taking our medicine. Chronic problems just seem to continue despite the frustrations they cause. Unlicensed vacation rental units have proliferated because we haven’t figured out how to manage them. Parks and hiking trails are degraded because of increased use.

    Homelessness persists as a social blight and impacts visitor areas. Uncontrolled traffic affects neighborhoods like Maunawili when visitors overrun residential streets to visit the falls.

    Don’t Cut HTA’s Budget
    We’ve addressed similar issues in the past, but only when they’ve become a crisis. The management plan for Hanauma Bay is a good example of how things can improve when we finally take action.

    But, we need to be proactive to make the big changes to address these issues. Change is uncomfortable, but change is necessary.

    Some have argued that we need to substantially cut tourism budgets in order to stem growth pains. Some in the industry argue that cuts will cause dramatic declines in visitor arrivals.

    I believe both arguments are flawed.

    If the Hawaii Tourism Authority budget is cut, visitors will continue to arrive in numbers, at least in the short term, because hotels, airlines and others in the private sector will continue to market themselves to fill seats and rooms. The difference will be that the state will no longer be a master of its own tourism destiny.

    The state complements private sector marketing by creating a brand to accomplish objectives in a strategic plan. Without that, Hawaii tourism will be defined by an industry that has its own strategic objectives.

    Effectively addressing the current issues in Hawaii tourism, in fact, probably requires more investment, not less. We need to invest in marketing that strategically attracts the visitors who contribute to real economic impact.

    We need a thoughtful, comprehensive plan to manage Hawaii’s tourism industry.

    Strategic marketing can also put a “band aid” on short-term issues by smoothing out seasonal demand and filling in areas that have relatively low visitation and occupancy. Investing to improve and expand festivals and events will enhance the visitor (and resident) experience.

    We need to invest in new types of tourism-related business that build on our tourism expertise, exporting the services of engineering, architectural and training firms.

    That would increase tourism related revenues without the impact of additional visitors.

    Changing Hawaii tourism won’t be easy because tourism is complex and the issues are complicated. We’re at a point that cries out for a thoughtful, comprehensive plan to manage Hawaii’s tourism industry.

  5. Just Saying May 24, 2018 2:23 pm Reply

    I’ve read few things more ridiculous than this, Being a professional is to produce at 100%. Doing less is called “UNPROFESSIONAL!” Can you imagine: “We’ve had a year free of fatal aviation accidents, controllers, pilots, aviation mechanics, you can show less attention to detail now!” “We have a population out of control, surgeons, next time you hear’STAT’ take a smoke break instead!” This was written by someone clueless about “professionalism!” Those of you who liked it; find another way!

  6. harryoyama2 May 24, 2018 8:20 pm Reply

    Since Hawaii has been featured almost every day on national and international news, we should take advantage of such media coverage and offer special discounted rates to see first hand the volcano’s display both on land and in the ocean.

    Although Kilauea has been closed due to steam explosions, we can still offer special tour packages that tourists have to sign a waiver to see and film it. I’m sure there are some National Guard or Active Army armoured vehicles that are just sitting at the Pohakuloa training range on the Big Island that can bring these tourist up close. Besides it’ll generate income for the military and civilian sectors since they need to eat lunch and other tourist related activities and put to rest the false reputation that the entire island is under evacuation.

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