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House Finance Committee Members Grill Tourism Officials On Budget Request

House Finance Committee Members Grill Tourism Officials On Budget Request
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The administration of Governor David Ige is asking lawmakers for $150.5 million to fund tourism-related activities, including the operation of the Hawaii Convention Center and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Specifically, the request includes $60 million to pay for the Tourism Authority’s operations, $28.5 million for convention center operations and maintenance and $64 million to replace the convention center’s existing rooftop terrace deck.

Although the tourism authority was hardly the only agency making requests during the 90-minute budget briefing, the authority’s requests – which were the largest by any agency – raised the most questions from lawmakers.

It’s a new status for HTA and the agency that oversees it, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Previously, HTA got its funding from hotel tax money distributed directly to the Tourism Authority, so there was no need to go to lawmakers every year to ask for the money.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has requested $150.5 million for the fiscal year beginning in July, including $60 million in operating funds so it can manage tourists and persuade them to “give more than they take” when they visit. Cory Lom / Civil Beat / 2021

But that changed last year, when the legislature passed a bill eliminating the influx of funding for the tourism authority. So, on Wednesday, DBEDT officials outlined the finance department’s needs for the House Finance Committee, which will play a key role in shaping the state budget. HTA has been a major point of interest among lawmakers.

Several questions focused not only on financial issues, such as the ticket price of some items, but more broadly on HTA’s mission. While the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted Hawaii’s dependence on visitors for income, many residents oppose the return of the record numbers of tourists who came to the state before the pandemic.

Amid the backlash, HTA shifted its focus. Traditionally, responsible for marketing Hawaii to tourists, the HTA now also strives to manage tourists by trying to attract people who respect Hawaiian culture and environment and ensuring that they act respectfully once they are here.

Emphasizing HTA’s evolving mission, the authority’s president and CEO, John Davies, told lawmakers that HTA’s $60 million operating order is at the same level as last year and will allow the agency to conduct destination management activities “to mitigate the negative impacts of tourism on communities.”

But lawmakers were skeptical. For example, House Budget Committee Chair Sylvia Locke asked how HTA can expect a different outcome from its marketing when it uses the same marketing company it has always had for its mainland campaigns.

House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Locke
During a budget briefing on Wednesday, House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Locke pressed Hawaii Tourism Authority officials to explain how the agency changed its activities to manage tourism rather than promote it. screenshot

DeFries acknowledged that was true but said the authority would soon place a new application for proposals outlining Hawaii’s new vision for tourism and use that to hire a new business.

Along the same lines, Representative Amy Piroso said her constituents see an inherent inconsistency between HTA’s missions in both tourism marketing and management. She noted that the state could refurbish all state school cafeterias for about half of what HTA requires for operations.

“Why should we spend $60 million promoting something that members of my community don’t want?” She asked.

HTA’s Chief Brand Officer, Kalani Kanana, stressed that the power is shifting toward educating tourists and inviting them to give back to Hawaii when they visit – “to give more than they take” – and to adopt Hawaiian values.

“How can they live these values ​​with us?” He said. “How can they travel in the bono when they are here?”

But Luke questioned HTA’s messaging efforts. Specifically, she asked how HTA would deal with what the authority has identified as the main topic of concern to Oahu residents: short-term vacation rentals.

Luke noted that the HTA helped send a message to tourists not to come to Hawaii during the escalation of the pandemic. I asked why the HTA can’t do the same kind of messaging for illegal vacation rentals.

When DeFries noted that vacation rentals were largely a boycott problem, Luke pressed the issue.

“For all of us, counties can only do so much,” she said. “What kind of messages do you give to tourists?”

Kaanaana said HTA had produced a one-minute video of “smart leasing” on Maui and promised to share it with the commission.

While questions about how well the HTA is managing tourists — and how much money it should get to keep doing what is being done — may be debatable, there was one problem that there was little room for maneuver on: a $64 million bill to overhaul the convention center cap . Davies said last week’s rains were so problematic that 1,400 people were moved from one place to another.

When asked if the HTA has a “Plan B” in case the legislature doesn’t provide the money, HTA officials said there is no other plan.

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