In Hawaii, Reimagining Tourism for a Post-Pandemic World


After the outbreak of the pandemic, Governor David Ige issued an executive order ceasing the disbursement of hotel and other transient accommodation taxes paid by visitors to the agency. Those funds have, since last year, been utilized to support other government operations.

Many are hopeful that John De Fries, who became the chief executive of the Tourism Authority in September, will be able to lead the islands into an era where tourism is more regenerative than extractive. Mr. De Fries is the first native Hawaiian to lead the organization and business owners who rely on tourism are counting on him to represent their interests as he thinks about how to market the islands in a post-pandemic world.

“We are at a time when our very survival is at stake,” Mr. De Fries said. “We understand that there are currencies other than cash that we have to reconcile. Some of those other currencies are the natural environment, a sense of well-being in the community. There’s currency in ensuring that Hawaiian cultural traditions are and should be protected.”

In January 2020, the tourism authority created a 2020-2025 strategic plan with four pillars or areas of focus — natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and brand marketing — to manage tourism responsibly going forward. When the pandemic hit, the agency decided to continue working on the plan. In particular, it kept consulting with residents about how they feel about tourism.

Mr. De Fries, who grew up in Waikiki and has seen tourism turn to overtourism over the past three decades, said that his approach for moving forward will emphasize regenerative travel through the Hawaiian ancestral idea of malama which means “to nurture.” The four pillars, he said, will be a guiding force.

“Everyone I talk to — hotel owners, elders, even the people who don’t like tourism — agrees that we all want future generations to have a natural resource base that’s in better condition than it is now, so we have to care for it and anyone with any aloha for this place will understand that.”

It’s a lesson that other overtouristed destinations might learn from.


Paige McClanahan contributed reporting from Europe.