Tension Over Tourism
Should Hawaii's tourism czars focus on attracting more visitors or take a holistic view of tourism's impact?
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Source: Hawaii Tourism Authority
“We are in the process of reinventing ourselves,” McCartney says. “The fundamental thing is the culture. If we don’t have the culture, we don’t have a product.”
That has led to a new “strategic plan” for tourism that reaches beyond the post-statehood concepts of visitor promotion to a vision that looks to the health of the state and its people, not just of the industry itself.
All that is well and good, but some in the industry worry that the grand vision will mean little if Hawaii fails to get enough people into airplanes and hotels (“butts in seats and heads in beds”).
“It’s lovely to have some Island-knowledge people involved (in the HTA),” says David Carey, president and chief executive officer of Outrigger Enterprises Group, Hawaii’s largest locally owned hotel and tourism company. “But there’s not enough folks with an actual stake in the industry on there.”
Seats will open on HTA’s board next year. Board members are nominated by the Legislature and appointed by the governor, representing public interests, the tourism industry, the counties and other parties. Carey hopes, he says, for more balance between those with a political or broader perspective, and those who know the industry and its needs.
Whether increased industry perspective is the cure-all is open to argument, Carey acknowledges. But he points out that HVCB marketing in North America, in which industry officials are directly involved, has been more successful than marketing contracted out in Japan, where direct industry involvement is minimal.
“It’s my belief that when industry partners are involved in the decision making, the results are better,” he says.
Call it a matter of “enlightened conflict,” Carey laughs.
In today’s climate, Carey says, the focus should be on maintaining the flow of people willing to come to Hawaii. “When business is down 20 percent to 25 percent, everybody has a problem,” he says.
“Cultural programs are wonderful, but they don’t bring people here. They might please them once they get here, but they don’t make people come.”
He makes a comparison to Mexico, which recently launched a major promotion on the Mainland to offset the tourism slump it suffered from swine flu and other controversies. Mexico allocated close to $60 million for that promotion, not much less than the annual budget of HTA for all its efforts.
State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, a frequent critic of HTA, contends the agency “is getting back on track. They’re holding their partners (HVCB and others) accountable for their marketing plans,” Kim says. Several years ago, she says, the agency “just took what the HVCB gave them. That wasn’t good enough.”
In its early years, HTA was little more than a middleman between the state and HVCB, Kim says. It developed an “incest relationship” in which the same people, or at least people from the same entities, sat on both HTA and HVCB boards.
That’s changed. Evidence of this shift is that HVCB is now just one of many marketing contractors to HTA, although still the biggest, with responsibility for North America. Other contractors oversee Japan, the rest of Asia and Europe.
A tension has developed. The tourism industry is seeking, Carey notes, a stronger voice on the HTA board, while other people – particularly those in politics, such as Kim – want to ensure a larger public interest to balance industry concerns.
While the HTA has no shortage of strategic plans, one thing missing is a long-term view of how Hawaii ought to be marketed in profoundly changed economic times, argues University of Hawaii economist James Mak. Mak is author of a recent study of tourism in Hawaii, “Developing a Dream Destination" (University of Hawaii Press, 2008).
“There hasn’t been much work that has been done on marketing in a crisis situation,” Mak says. When money was abundant and people were eager to travel, Hawaii had to do little more than remind travelers that it was here, arms open and eager for visitors. That’s changed, as consumers everywhere are watching their budgets and cost-conscious corporations cancel incentive and convention trips to Hawaii.
“Hawaii was successful in creating a brand image, and now that image has come back to bite us,” Mak noted. His point is that Hawaii has successfully marketed itself as a place where pleasure and leisure dominate. That’s not a strong selling point – particularly for business and incentive travel – when austerity and budget concerns are the order of the day.
Mak thinks, and Carey and others agree, that the strategy now is to identify and focus on those areas and market groups that are still willing and able to travel. Carey says he believes HTA is already moving in that direction with focused (HTA calls it “tactical”) attention on geographic areas on the Mainland and specific economic groups in Japan and elsewhere who still imagine Hawaii in their travel plans.
Says Mak: “The old strategy of throwing more money at it is not enough anymore.”
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