Excerpt from seattletimes.com
John De Fries still recalls fishing the waters off Waikiki Beach in Oahu as a kid in the 1960s. “Growing up, my family fishing grounds were a source of food first and recreation second,” he says. “Today they’re a playground surrounded by hotels.”
Born and raised in Waikiki, De Fries was appointed president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority in Sept. 2020, when coronavirus shutdowns had the state’s economy reeling but the community and environment thriving. In 2019, the state of 1.5 million people hosted a record 10.4 million visitors—unsustainable figures that had residents feeling sour. Though tourism netted $2.07 billion in tax revenue that year, Hawaiians lamented its effects on traffic, beaches, and the cost of living.
For locals, the quietude of 2020 “was somewhat euphoric,” says De Fries. “It felt like we got our islands back.”
But that wasn’t sustainable either. Nor was the boom that happened in July, when visitor arrivals exceeded their 2019 level by 21% despite strict Covid-19 testing protocols, mask mandates, capacity restrictions, and staff shortages.
That, says De Fries, “was like putting 220 volts of electricity through a 110-volt circuit.” Rental cars became so scarce that U-Hauls were found in beach parking lots; resorts jacked up rates, with average stays at hotels in Maui of $596 a night in August; new taxes were sought; and vacation-starved visitors didn’t flinch.
What comes next is a radically transformed experience for visitors — and locals — hopefully, in a good way. For the first time, Hawaii’s tourism authority is majority-run by Hawaiian natives, rather than white mainlanders with hospitality degrees. With the input of locals, who range from farmers to hotel owners, each of Hawaii’s four counties has created a strategic plan that stretches into 2025 and focuses on sustainable destination management rather than marketing.