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The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) spends millions of dollars attracting visitors to our coast. But now that tourism has practically stopped, should HTA stop too? At least temporarily?
It’s a tough question to answer. At this point last year, no one could predict the near complete collapse of Hawaii’s tourism industry a few months later – especially after a banner year in 2019. HTA’s marketing plans were understandably based on very different projections. Unfortunately, HTA seems to have ventured far enough to be caught in the COVID-19 trap.
Star Advertiser’s Allison Schaefers reported this week that when the tourism apocalypse hit at full force in April last year, HTA was spending around $ 15,614 on marketing for every Japanese visitor who came to Hawaii. In November the number was more modest but still raised eyebrows: $ 381 for each visitor.
For fiscal 2020 (which spanned half of 2019), the cost of a visitor’s entry to major markets increased: $ 7.13 per arrival for U.S. visitors, an increase of more than 118%; $ 17.17 for Japan, up nearly 201%; $ 2.01 for Canada, nearly 36%.
Was it a waste of money? Some of it, no doubt. But HTA can’t just stop. Hawaii’s economy is heavily reliant on the visitor industry and state tourism officials need to lay the foundations for a better future, even if the short-term situation looks dire. And with HTA’s main source of funding – the temporary housing tax – drying up, the agency now has to be more strategic about how to spend its dwindling resources.
That may not be a bad thing. Hawaii’s tourism industry was harshly criticized for its resolute focus on filling airplane seats, which it did with great success in 2019 – 10.4 million visitors thronged against increasingly disaffected locals. Many residents have come in the past few months to enjoy more peaceful beaches and other attractions, and some don’t like the thought of reopening too soon as COVID-19 is still out of control.
It is therefore encouraging to see HTA and its sister agency, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, are developing programs to attract the discerning visitor who will appreciate and respect Hawaii’s culture and values rather than viewing the islands as a mere playground. Quality, not just quantity, should be the buzzword in tourism in the future.