Hawaii's point man for tourism is enthusiastic about its many challenges
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 24, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
Mike McCartney admits he likes to talk a lot, but that isn't surprising since his job as executive director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority is to promote the state as a premier visitor destination.
His loquaciousness also probably helped when he was:
» A state senator for 10 years, representing the " Kaneohe-to-Kahuku district.
» Director of the state Department of Human Resources Development under Gov. Ben Cayetano.
» The first president of PBS Hawaii, which he helped convert from a government agency to a private nonprofit.
» Executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which is where he was working when he was asked to apply for the HTA job — in 2009, during Republican Linda Lingle's term as governor.
The HTA board hired him despite his being a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. But he wasn't a neophyte to the job: As Senate majority leader, he had helped create the authority, and was its chairman for two years under Cayetano.
These days the agency has 26 employees and an annual budget of $69 million, plus $33 million for the management and marketing the Hawaii Convention Center.
Age 51 and active in many community organizations, McCartney is a graduate of Castle High School in Kaneohe and Pacific University in Oregon. He is married to Candace Furubayashi, an ophthalmologist, with whom he has three children and lives in Kailua.
Question: What do you think it means that Gov. Neil Abercrombie hasn’t asked you or any of the HTA board members to resign (like he did of many other state agency board directors)?
Answer: I think we see the same vision, that Hawaii is a special place and experience. It’s about people, place and culture, and I think he understands the importance of what we do.
Q: I wanted to ask you for some quick takes on some tourism-related issues that have been in the news lately.
Q: What do you think about Kyo-ya Co.’s proposal to tear down its Diamond Head Tower in Waikiki and build a new 100-foot tower in its place?
A: Well, the HTA board doesn’t have an official position on the project, but, in general, we support new tourism product development, and I think it’s important to continue to refresh the product.
I also think Kyo-ya has been trying to deal with the community needs and concerns and make some adjustments, so I was pleased to see that. I think it’s a good project for Hawaii, and for Waikiki, and Waikiki is the place that should have that kind of development.
Q: What about the failure of the state to restock the beach in front of the hotel there with sand?
A: Well, we’re doing that. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has put in about $1.5 million and we’ve put in half-a-million dollars, and Kyo-ya put in another half-a-million.
Q: What’s taking so long?
A: I think it’s been going through the permitting process, and now I think we have to wait until after the summer swells along the South Shore.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard Gov. Abercrombie suggesting the state pull the $4 million from the Pro Bowl?
A: I think that the governor has been given a lot of tough cards to deal with. There are many problems the state faces, and I think he was just expressing his concern that we have to take care of many needs. Since he said that we’ve had some really good conversations and we’ve shared good information about the NFL.
You know, the NFL has been good to us. We’ve had 30 years of a wonderful relationship, and I think that we’re looking forward to the game in 2012.
Q: You think the game will come back after that?
A: I think that’s what we’re discussing, about how to do that. I think everyone understands that Hawaii does not have the kind of resources that it used to have.
Q: What did you think about that recent speech by Richard Lim, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, that questioned the future of tourism in Hawaii?
A: I think what he was trying to say — and I’m not trying to talk for Richard — but I think what he was saying is that there is a need for something beyond tourism and the military. We need a third leg of our economy. I think there’s an urgency for that. Tourism is doing well. It provides about $12 billion a year — a billion dollars a month that comes in. And it’s about 150,000 jobs. It is about 18 percent of the gross state product.
Q: You have any ideas for what else there could be?
A: My job is to nurture and support tourism and focus on that, and have people like Richard go to work on that. My kuleana is to work on increasing visitor arrivals, to hit our targets, and also to make sure that our people, our place and our culture remain distinct.
Q: What do you think about Andy Anderson’s proposal to build an 80-room hotel in Haleiwa.?
A: I think new product is good. But it’s always the size and the impact that you have to manage. You have to find the delicate balance between a community and its rural lifestyle and having a resort-type development.
Q: Would that apply to the 220-room hotel proposed for Laie?
A: The Laie hotel, I think, is something that’s needed out there, because Brigham Young University is a major learning institution, and those people — Hawaii Reserves Inc. and that group that’s doing it — will do it right. Again, it’s always sensitive to have development there because you have limited infrastructure, from the roads to the wastewater treatment, so it is important that the community and the entities talk. They may not always see eye to eye, but that conversation has to take place. And I represented that district, so I know it’s sensitive. But I think it will be good, and if you look at the type of hotel they want to do there, it’s where friends and family can come and stay and visit. It’s a place where visiting professors can come and stay, where the basketball teams can stay. So it fits in there.
Q: What about the bed-and-breakfasts controversy?
A: I think bed-and-breakfasts are good and provide a service for visitors who come and want to stay in quaint places. It also provides an opportunity for a local homeowner that provides that service to keep the home in the family.
Again, it’s always size and scale as to the degree that it impacts the neighborhood. In areas like Kailua, where I live now, I think it works pretty well. But there’s always going to be tension.
Q: What about the U.S. visa-waiver program being so difficult for China?
A: It is a challenge, and I think it’s one of our major hopes and dreams that we are able to free that up.
Q: How do you do that?
A: We’re working through the State Department. It’s going to be a while before you will get full visa waivers for China. But we can do things like increase the volume (of applicants) that can go through for the interviews, increase the length of periods somebody has a visa. … I think those are first steps that can be taken. But it’s much bigger than just travel. It’s international diplomacy that’s going on.
Q: Are there other countries that should be included in the program?
A: Korea has been working out wonderfully. Japan has proven to be great. I think eventually we should look at some of the southeast Asia countries, because as Asia grows, so will Hawaii’s opportunities. I think that’s why Hawaii’s unemployment rate is doing pretty well right now, because we have that Asia balance compared to other states. And APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit scheduled here in November) is going to bring opportunity for us, by bringing the world’s attention, especially Asia’s attention, to Hawaii. That, for me, for us, is where we’d like to go in the future — for Hawaii to go beyond being just a leisure destination. If you’re capable of hosting the greatest business meeting in the world, which is APEC, then you can host a lot of other meetings, and that is a pathway to future economic development.
Q: What would you say is the most pressing need of Hawaii tourism right now?
A: I think it’s to keep the momentum we have in the market going right now. We have tremendous momentum toward Hawaii in major markets around the world. We have major competition, but over the last few years have been able to grow our market share. What’s pressing is that we continue having a destination that people love to come to, and have marketing programs in our major markets that drive demand. Also, airlift is so important.
Q: You mean like aircraft?
A: Yeah, like working with the airlines. That not only helps tourism, it helps business grow in Hawaii. Without those flights, we wouldn’t have business opportunities. And so for us, airlift is everything, and we’re looking forward to growing lift out of Asia.
The third element is Hawaii’s multi-cultural experience. … I believe with all my heart what Auntie Pilahi Paki said, which is that “the world will turn to Hawaii as they search for world peace, because Hawaii has the key, and that key is aloha.” I think that’s the reason why people come. … We have a lot of competition; you can go anywhere. But what Hawaii has is its wonderful experience.
Q: What do you think about the experience of riding from the airport to Waikiki, and the airport itself?
A: It could get better. And I think that APEC coming here has given us this tremendous opportunity to look within and make ourselves better as a destination.