‘HTA is no different’; Bill would limit state tourism agency’s responsibilities, funds

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Alexandra, left, and Cheryl Bock take photos of Onomea Falls at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on Thursday, April 8, 2021. The botanical garden reopened for the first time since closing last year.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A family walks up the boardwalk after exploring the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on Thursday, April 8, 2021. The botanical garden reopened for the first time since closing last year.

A bill that would gut significant resources and responsibilities of the Hawaii Tourism Authority has stirred opposition among state tourism organizations.

House Bill 862 was, until recently, a relatively uncontroversial bill that would reconfigure the administration of various aerospace agencies throughout the state. However, earlier this week, a new version of the measure was proposed that included significant changes to the management of HTA as well.


The changes largely delete language from state statutes that grant HTA the authority to carry out its current duties, including clauses allowing HTA to develop state policies relating to the economic and ecological impacts of tourism, develop tourism-related educational programs, promote Native Hawaiian culture, form advisory groups with state and county agencies and more.

Under the proposed measure, HTA’s purview would be primarily limited to marketing and promotion, while funding for the agency would also be significantly handicapped: funds from the Tourism Emergency Special Fund would now only be usable for safety and security initiatives, no more than 3.5% of those funds could be spent on administrative expenses and an allocation of Transient Accommodations Tax revenues to the Special Fund would be abolished.

The changes to the bill appear to have been added only this week by the Senate committees on Ways and Means and Commerce and Consumer Protection, which will have a joint hearing on the measure today.

Big Island Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who is on the Ways and Means committee, said the rationale for the measure is based on a statewide effort to streamline government agencies in the wake of the COVID pandemic.

“We’re streamlining everything right now, and HTA is no different,” Inouye said. “Our pocket is a lot smaller this year for everything.”

Inouye said because of the sharp decrease in tourism last year, HTA has brought in much less income than ordinary for the state. With the state facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion, all committees in the Legislature have been encouraged to pare down agencies where they can.

With the changes to HTA, Inouye said the agency can spend more resources on marketing, while other agencies such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs can manage some of HTA’s other duties, including the promotion of Native Hawaiian culture.

However, the proposed measure has not been popular, least of all with HTA itself.

In testimony submitted for today’s meeting, HTA president and CEO John De Fries wrote that the bill “takes a sledgehammer to HTA and three of its four strategic pillars (Hawaiian culture, natural resources and community), just as we launch our tourism recovery strategies that will help our devastated economy heal from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Should the bill pass, De Fries warned HTA’s support for the Merrie Monarch Festival, as well as other events and programs statewide, could no longer continue. Hawaiian cultural and music performances at the state’s airports also could be terminated.

Dozens of other organizations echoed De Fries’ opposition. Business organizations such as the Hawaii Island, Kona-Kohala and Native Hawaiian chambers of commerce all opposed the bill on the grounds that it would all but obliterate HTA’s ability to manage Hawaii tourism at any level. Wendy Laros, president of the Kona-Kohala Chamber, pointed out that HTA only just released a Destination Management Action Plan for Hawaii Island last week after a three-year long process, and passing the bill would render HTA incapable of acting on that plan.

Environmental groups rejected the bill because it slashes funds for HTA’s conservation programs, and Native Hawaiian groups opposed the reduction of funding for cultural and educational programs.

“Removing the important functions of thoughtful development of tourism policy … and protecting the cultural and natural resources that are our differentiators takes us back to the earliest days of tourism promotion in Hawaii — a strategy that resulted in decades of unbridled tourism at the expense of our kama‘aina,” wrote Kirstin Kahaloa, president of Hui ‘Oihana, the Hawaii Island Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce.


Any support the bill received was entirely on the grounds of its unrelated proposals for the aerospace industry, which still remain untouched as a part of the bill. Those plans, which include placing the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems under the control of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, were positively received by the small percentage of testifiers who addressed them.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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