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Hawaii Tourism Authority hires John De Fries, first Native Hawaiian to helm agency

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has hired its first Native Hawaiian president and CEO.

Tourism industry veteran John De Fries is slated to start Sept. 16. According to the terms of his contract, his base salary is $270,000 with an automatic 5% increase for each full-year of the contract.

He replaces Chris Tatum, who exited his three-year contract with HTA early when he retired Aug. 31 “to spend more time with family.”

De Fries, who was born and raised in Waikiki, is now living in Kona on Hawaii island. He has worked in tourism since the 1970s. His background includes tour company operations, hotel sales and marketing, television sports marketing, resort operations, hotel-resort construction and development of master-planned residential communities with resort-class amenities.

“Hawaii’s pathway to economic recovery and enhanced community well-being will require unprecedented levels of focus, collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and unified executive leadership throughout all sectors,” De Fries said in a statement today.

De Fries said Hawaii now faces a myriad of daunting challenges, including the “reopening of our tourism industry, at a time when immense and growing anxiety can be felt in our local communities.”

“The radiance of hope, however, is found in the resilience and creativity of Hawaii’s leaders in both the public and private sectors – the aunties, uncles, parents, kupuna, youth, coaches, teachers, ministers, health care workers and essential workers who are diligently searching for solutions, for their communities, he said.

De Fries is currently president and principal adviser of Native Sun Business Group Inc., a business consulting and project management firm with a focus on Hawaii’s hospitality and real estate development industries.

He’s also been executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA). He’s led the Department of Research and Development for Hawaii County. He’s also served as president and CEO of Hokulia, a luxury residential community on Hawaii Island. De Fries serves on numerous boards, including Kualoa Ranch, Bishop Museum and the Keahole Center for Sustainability.

De Fries first made his desire for the job known in June when he turned down a proposed role as senior special assistant in the Office of Governor that would focus on identifying a Native Hawaiian reconciliation process; as well as Maunakea and TMT matters.

HTA Chairman Rick Fried said De Fries was selected from a field of 324 candidates.

“All of us at HTA are looking forward to having John take the helm of Hawaii’s visitor industry. I was pleased to see that he has already become involved with working on ways that we can safely reopen tourism while keeping COVID-19 under control,” Fried said in a statement.

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