Since 1998, the Hawaiian Tourism Authority (HTA) – the state’s leading agency to manage tourism – has had its focus largely on marketing Hawaii to the world. But in 2019, when the state hit a record of over 10 million tourists, the milestone taxed residents, and caused significant environmental impacts on trails, beaches and sacred sites.
During the pandemic, the agency’s new leader, John De Fries, called the time a “huliau”, which in Hawaiian means a time of transition. It was one that De Fries, the first Native Hawaiian in the role, felt would be the perfect moment to reset Hawaii in a way that would marry modern technology and Indigenous wisdom to protect the future of the island and promote its state-adopted sustainability goals by 2030.
As the first state in the nation to declare a climate emergency, Hawaii’s residents have long felt an urgency for better tourism management strategies, with a majority believing that the island has been run for tourists at the expense of the locals, according to a recent HTA survey. Then, for the first time ever, HTA expanded beyond marketing and came up with the most comprehensive, sustainable and regenerative tourism plan, involving three new focuses that prioritized Native Hawaiian culture, community, and the environment. It cited an increase in $7.5m to support those efforts.
But just as they finally launched their recovery strategies – and tourism’s floodgates opened post economic collapse – the legislature, in a last-minute gut-and-replace move, introduced House Bill 862, stripping HTA’s funding and responsibilities in April. In one of the earlier amended versions of the bill, the legislature cut all of its financing for any Native Hawaiian organizations, cultural programming, and environmental nonprofits it had already been funding for years, causing immediate uproar in the community and over 200 public testimonials in opposition.
“You want to use us, you want to take all you can from our home, our resources, and our way of life and give us little to nothing in return,” testified Mapuana Da Silva, executive director of the Kailua-based cultural nonprofit Hika’alani.
According to Maggie Kahoilua, a Kona-based philanthropist, the bill perpetuates the cycle of occupied powers destroying national identity, further erasing knowledge of the Hawaiian kingdom. “A lot of people don’t even know the Hawaiian kingdom exists, and that’s what they prefer.”
Senator Glenn Wakai, who is in support of the bill, said that HTA should focus on its original purpose of brand marketing, and that the agency needs to have more accountability with their spending.
According to De Fries, that complaint isn’t entirely unfounded but seems to stem from an agency of yore that at one time was the subject of a blistering audit. These days all their dealings are made public on the website, while he reports to a 12-member board, confirmed by the senate.
Currently, awaiting a decision from Governor David Ige, the new bill, if it were to go into effect, would take HTA’s fiscal year 2023 budget to zero, and the agency would have to go through a rigorous process to justify to legislators why it should receive general funds, while also, requiring state approval for all future contracts and purchases. Even if vetoed, another bill, HB 200, also threatens to thwart its funding.
This has left the agency scrambling to use special funds for cultural organizations by 1 July, so the money won’t go back to the state. Meanwhile their multi-year plans to protect the environment and communities are now up in the air.
“At a time when we need to be more fluent, more rapid, more maneuverable, we now have all these added weights … ” said De Fries.
“[But] at the end of the day the only credible criticism is a better idea. So that’s why we don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves, we’ve just got to get more creative.”
“If this bill passes, we will return to unchecked tourism without a specific accountability mechanism to assure any significant investment back into pono environmental and cultural stewardship,” said Mahina Paishon-Duarte, a representative from Aina Aloha Economic Futures, a community-first grassroots organization that believes Native Hawaiian voices, values, and experiences need to help influence the economic recovery.
“We deserve better. We will not go backwards towards a model that negatively impacted the health of the ʻāina [land] and our quality of life,” she said.