Hawaii’s Tourism Agency to Get Its First Budget in Two Years

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Skift Take

Legislators have stripped away the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s funding and autonomy over the past few years. By finally getting a budget, the agency seems to be winning trust that it can manage tourism responsibly.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green is expected to sign a series of bills that will give the Hawaii Tourism Authority a new mandate and budget — its first one in two years — by July 11.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) is expected to have a budget of over $60 million for the 2025 fiscal year. Over the past two years, lawmakers have excluded the agency from the state budget. The tourism board has been forced to request funding from the state’s budgeting and finance department, with the governor’s and lawmakers’ approval.

“We’re confident and have gotten zero indications that we are at risk the way we have been in previous years,” said Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “We don’t have any indication that our funding is in jeopardy.”

Winning Back Favor

The new budget comes after a series of cutbacks by legislators. Last year, there had been talks to dissolve the agency, with two bills in the legislature.  In 2021, the legislature removed the agency’s dedicated funding stream from lodging tax collections.

With a budget, the agency’s board of directors can hire a new CEO, said Gionson. The last CEO, John De Fries, left the position in September. Since then, Daniel Nahoopii has served as interim president and CEO.

“You wouldn’t necessarily want to recruit a leader not knowing what the future of the organization is,” said Gionson. 

Gionson said the slow recovery of Maui’s economy in the wake of the August wildfire last year demonstrated the value of tourism to legislators. The agency has launched multiple marketing campaigns to encourage tourists to return.

“We’ve rebuilt trust to the extent that we got a budget when the past two years we didn’t,” Gionson said. 

Hawaii Tourism’s New Formal Job: Destination Manager

The governor is also expected to sign a bill that explicitly adds the responsibility of destination management into the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s statute. Over the past few years, the authority has taken a more active role in destination management, which is the practice of mitigating environmental damage, overcrowding, poor visitor behavior and other negative consequences from mass tourism.

Gionson said that with a codified responsibility, other agencies would be enticed to participate in the authority’s destination management initiatives, such as visitor education and implementing solutions to overtourism at attractions and infrastructure.

Hawaii’s State Agencies to Adopt Regenerative Tourism

Last week, the governor signed Senate Bill 2659. It incorporates a regenerative framework into the Hawaii State Planning Act and the state’s “tourism functional plan,” or documents that guide state and local government operations.

“We’re excited to see these principles make their way into one of the foundational planning documents for the entire state,” said Gionson.

At the moment, one of the challenges of implementing regenerative tourism is the lack of a standardized framework or metrics for measuring regenerative tourism, according to Skift Research’s Regenerative Tourism: Fact from Fiction Report.

The bill doesn’t explicitly define regenerative tourism, but HTA defines it as supporting tourism that is net positive for locals and the environment, Gionson said.

Locals have had a complicated relationship with tourism. Many have been frustrated with its negative impact on their quality of life and environment.

To see what regenerative tourism could look like in practice, Gionson pointed to programs piloted by Hawaii’s state parks that incorporate community input and stewardship. 

“Perhaps some departments aren’t built for addressing tourism directly, but there are those opportunities to build experiences, to build community participation and collaboration,” said Gionson.

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