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Editorial: Override muddles mission of Hawaii Tourism Authority

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Established by state law in the late 1990s, much of the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s work has zeroed in on marketing the islands as a go-to destination for travelers. But in recent years, rising concerns about over-tourism and sustainability — the big-umbrella term for the industry’s effect on the environment and local communities as well as the economy — had HTA widening its stated focus to “destination management.”

In 2020, the agency unveiled a strategic plan for tackling valid concerns that became more conspicuous during pre-COVID years of record-breaking tourism. Among them: growing infrastructure burdens, overcrowded beaches and hiking trails and illegal vacation rentals.

Now, due to Tuesday’s misguided override vote cast by state lawmakers, HTA’s ability to lead Hawaii’s ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic with a more balanced and cohesive tourism approach is severely weakened. House and Senate members voted by two-thirds majorities to override Gov. David Ige’s veto of the flawed House Bill 862.

That creates a new law that will take away the HTA’s dedicated funding source, and cuts its current annual budget from $79 million to $60 million in federal pandemic relief funds. It also eliminates a procurement exemption, which has afforded the agency nimbleness to effectively respond to fast-moving tourism-related challenges and trends. Now, like most other state agencies, HTA must get state approval at each turn on future contracts and purchases.

In addition, through the measure, the state seizes a total of $103 million in transient accommodations taxes that would have gone to the counties. In lieu of this annual portion of hotel tax dollars, counties may adopt a 3% surcharge on visitor accommodations — on top of the state’s 10.25% hotel tax.

Initially, lawmakers appeared to have advanced HB 862, in part, to help stabilize state finances, which were dismal at the start of the 2021 legislative session due to the virtual shutdown of the tourism industry. But with significantly brighter economic projections this spring, the continued hard push for the bill has the unseemly look of a money grab and micromanagement.

House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said the Legislature is leading the way toward better balance by expanding the reach of the hotel tax and other fees as a means to ensure that tourists are charged for “their share” of resources they use. “It’s all part of a sustainable management plan that the Legislature has already started. … To rely on HTA to come up with these solutions at some later point is not the right thing. The time has already passed.”

While more revenues flowing toward sustainability goals are welcome, diminishing and muddling HTA’s role during this critical period of economic recovery is a mistake. Among HTA’s current priorities is mitigation of resident-visitor “friction points” to create lasting compatibility in affected communities. Some, such as a successful reservation-voucher system installed at Haena State Park in 2019, require a strong lead agency and years-in-the-making effort.

While lawmakers seem to support HTA’s clear ambition to build destination management around the pillars of natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and brand marketing, the last-minute gut-and-replace action that delivered HB 862’s final draft offered scant direction. Moving forward, in addition to selling Hawaii to travelers while balancing local concerns, the agency must fully articulate its worth to the Legislature.

In all, both legislative chambers on Tuesday overrode five of Ige’s 26 vetoes. Also among them was Senate Bill 811, which requires the state to disclose which public schools have COVID-19 cases. On this matter, enacting this new law will rightly place communitywide public health concerns over assertions of school-specific privacy needs.

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