It was wholly disheartening when in June, with Hawaii’s economy and tourism industry collapsed due to the pandemic, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s CEO decided it was time to say aloha. As in, see you later, Hawaii — time to retire to Colorado.
Now comes HTA’s new leader: tourism industry veteran John De Fries, who officially starts Wednesday but is already working on ways to safely reopen tourism while keeping COVID-19 under control.
To call the mission daunting would be an understatement. Earlier this year, pre-COVID, Hawaii was coming off another record year in a string of record years, with 10.4 million visitors in 2019. But then came the coronavirus in spring — and with it, stay-at-home lockdowns — and businesses atrophied or outright died. In July, air travel here plunged an unimaginable 97.7% from a year earlier: just 22,562 visitors came by air, compared with 995,210 last July.
Similarly, Hawaii’s hotels suffered a 98% dive in business and shuttered — all leading to mass unemployment for local workers.
It now falls to De Fries and key Hawaii leaders to bring actions, resolve and vision to statewide recovery. For the new HTA chief, who will earn a $270,000 base salary at the start of his 3-year contract, that will necessitate a skill set that knows tourism like the back of his hand, of course, but also managerial savvy to deal with an HTA budget slashed to $48.6 million in fiscal 2021, from $86.7 million in fiscal 2020.
Political savvy also will be needed to work with legislators — especially amid dismal state budget and tax projections — and to deal with pre-COVID concerns about overtourism impacts on Hawaii’s resources, culture and the natural environment. Even amid economic devastation, calls ring out for a reset that focuses on sustainable tourism and reimagining of Hawaii’s travel experience.
De Fries could well be the right man in the right place at the right time. As the HTA announcement of his hiring noted, De Fries is the first Native Hawaiian to head the HTA, and in recent years, has participated in “rare” opportunities for leadership in sustainable living, human rights and embracing native intelligence. Born in Waikiki, he “was raised by family elders steeped in Hawaiian culture.” A Kona resident, De Fries is president of Native Sun Business Group, a business consulting firm, after 40-plus years in tourism and resort development industries.
Times are indeed tough for Hawaii and its bread-and-butter tourism industry. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? A lot is banking on De Fries being tough enough.