House finance committee members grill tourism officials over budget request


Gov. David Ige’s administration is asking lawmakers $ 150.5 million to fund tourism-related activities, including the operation of the Hawaii Convention Center and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Specifically, the request includes $ 60 million to pay for the operations of the tourism authority, $ 28.5 million for the operation and maintenance of the convention center and $ 64 million to replace the rooftop terrace of the leaky convention center.

While the tourism authority was not the only agency to make requests during the 90-minute budget briefing, the authority’s requests – which were the most important of all the agencies – drew the most questions from lawmakers.

This is a new situation for the HTA and the entity which supervises it, the Ministry of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Previously, the HTA received its funding from hotel tax money distributed directly to the tourism authority, so there was no need to go to lawmakers every year to ask for money.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has requested $ 150.5 million for the fiscal year beginning in July, including $ 60 million in operating money so it can manage tourists and convince them to “give more than they do. do take “when they visit. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

But that changed last year, when the Legislature passed a bill eliminating the tourism authority’s special funding stream. So, on Wednesday, DBEDT officials presented the department’s financial needs to the House finance committee, which will play a key role in shaping the state budget. And HTA was the main point of interest among lawmakers.

Several questions focused not only on fiscal matters, such as the ticket price of certain items, but more broadly on the mission of the HTA. As the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted Hawaii’s dependence on visitors for income, many residents oppose the return of the record masses of tourists who came to the state before the pandemic. .

Amid the backlash, HTA shifted focus. Traditionally in charge of marketing Hawaii to tourists, HTA now seeks to deal with tourists as well by trying to attract people who will respect Hawaii’s culture and environment and ensuring that they behave with it. respect once they’re here.

Highlighting the evolving mission of the HTA, the authority’s chairman and CEO, John DeFries, told lawmakers that the HTA’s $ 60 million operating demand is on par with the HTA ‘last year and would allow the agency to conduct destination management activities “to mitigate the negative impact of tourism on communities.”

But lawmakers were skeptical. For example, House Budget Committee Chair Sylvia Luke asked how HTA could expect a different outcome from her marketing when she uses the same marketing company she still has for her campaigns on the continent.

Chair of the House Finance Committee, Sylvia Luke
In Wednesday’s budget briefing, House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke urged Hawaii Tourism Authority officials to explain how the agency had shifted its focus to managing instead. that promote tourism. Screenshot

DeFries acknowledged this to be true, but said the authority would soon write a new request for proposals outlining Hawaii’s new vision for tourism and use it to hire a new company.

On a related note, Representative Amy Perruso said her constituents saw an inherent conflict between HTA’s missions of marketing and managing tourism. And she pointed out that the state could renovate all of the state’s school cafeterias for about half of what HTA charges for operations.

“Why should we spend $ 60 million to promote something that members of my community don’t want? ” she asked.

HTA brand director Kalani Kaanaana stressed that the authority is moving towards educating tourists and calling on them to give back to Hawaii when they visit – “give more than they take” – and to embrace Hawaiian values.

“How can they live these values ​​with us? ” he said. “How can they travel pono when they’re here?” “

But Luke questioned HTA’s messaging efforts. Specifically, she asked how HTA handled what the authority identified as the number one concern for Oahu residents: short-term vacation rentals.

Luke noted that the HTA had helped send the message to tourists not to come to Hawaii during an outbreak of the pandemic. She asked why HTA couldn’t send the same type of message for illegal vacation rentals.

When DeFries noted that vacation rentals were largely a county issue, Luke emphasized the issue.

“For all of us there is little that the counties can do,” she said. “What kind of message do you give to tourists? “

Kaanaana said HTA had produced a one-minute video on “smart rental” in Maui and promised to share it with the committee.

While the question of how well HTA handled tourists – and how much money it would need to get to keep doing what it did – might be moot, there was one issue that there was little to say about. leeway: the $ 64 million bill to repair the central roof convention. The rains last week posed such a problem that a convention of 1,400 people had to be moved from one location to another, DeFries said.

And when asked if the HTA had a “plan B” in case the legislature didn’t provide the money, HTA officials replied that there was no other plan.

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