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From Waikiki to Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, John De Fries Shares Core Hawaiian Values

Casey Harlow
Hawaii Public Radio

John De Fries, the first Native Hawaiian to head the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, fondly remembers growing up on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki surrounded by family and friends.

His neighborhood included an impressive list of famous Waikiki spots — the beach, the Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Shell, among others. He said it was like Disneyland.

"I've read a number of studies that talk about the fact that Waikiki, in some ways, has lost a common charm because there are no local families in that fabric, but I can remember a time when there was," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Because of his upbringing in Waikiki, there were hopes he could bring a sensitivity to the HTA post. The Conversation met with De Fries at the end of a tiny Waikiki street that some years ago he called home. He shared his visions for Hawaiʻi tourism during what may be the industry's most challenging period.

Below are excerpts from his interview with The Conversation's Catherine Cruz, edited for length and clarity.

On the influx of visitors returning to his hometown Waikiki and Hawaiʻi as a whole

DE FRIES: I think what's important to note right now, is that there really is no competition, right? The international destinations that typically compete for the same market that we do in tourism, are not open. What I'm saying is that Hawaiʻi right now has no real competition. When that competition returns, my instinct says you'll start to see this stabilize. The market will have to adjust because what's going to happen is when they return to the market, they're gonna have to compete. They're going to go heavy with discounts and what you're going to see is a number of airlines that redirect air seats currently coming into Hawaiʻi, now being redirected back to the international destinations.

Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority
John De Fries, President and CEO of the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority

I think nine months, 10 months ago when I started at HTA, the one thing I don't think any of us factored in was the fact that we would reemerge in the absence of that competition. And so it's created this windfall, not all of it's pretty. It's creating some conflicts in key areas that we still have to manage. But I use this metaphor really to talk about the system of tourism, but it's like when you turn off your house plumbing for 10 months. When you turn it back on, you don't want to drink the first water. But you also don't want to condemn the source from where that water is coming from, because the system needs to flush itself. And it's kind of the way I view this. I don't expect everybody to appreciate that but I knew that the reopening of tourism and the economy was not going to be mere flipping of the switch, right? This was going to open uneven.

On the Honolulu airport expansion adding potentially 11 new gates

DE FRIES: The capacity to receive visitors is actually expanding as we speak, at a time when our communities throughout our state are calling for less. Now we have the task of having to reconcile the investment that's been made by state airports. I'm sure the planning and design probably go back a decade when you understand procurement and all that. So 10 years ago, that was like a profound idea. Nonetheless, it's an investment that the State of Hawaiʻi has made, the people of Hawaiʻi have paid it with tax dollars, and federal dollars. So we're having to learn how to reconcile that kind of movement. I knew coming into HTA 10 months ago that whatever change we would contemplate or initiate was going to happen inside a free enterprise system.

On envisioning what tourism should look like generations from now

DE FRIES: The point I want to emphasize is that, again, tourism is not just a standalone entity, it actually is held together by infrastructure — that is county government, state government, federal government, private sector. So it's going to be critical that leaders from all of those entities come together and agree on some kind of vision for Hawaiʻi's future. This time, we need to push it out to a point where we can actually start to contemplate this not in terms of years or decades, but in terms of generations: what's it going to take? What's life going to be like for the folks three generations from now? I hold that elected officials and business leaders and community leaders have the capacity to see that far — because it's where their great-grandchildren will live. And we do need to take the time and look at what we see in that long view. Not to oversimplify it, but if I said to 100 kamaʻaina who I don't know: "Three generations from now, would you like to see the natural resource base of Hawaiʻi in better condition then than it is today?" No doubt in my mind, all 100 will say yes. If I said, "Do you want to see Hawaiian language and Hawaiian traditions and culture flourishing to a greater degree, three generations from now than it is doing today?" Chances are everybody would agree to that. And they'd agree to wanting to protect our kamaʻaina way of life.

On how to better protect Hawaiʻi's natural environment

DE FRIES: Certain areas in the natural environment need time each year to replenish themselves, to reproduce. We have to be bold enough in industry to say, X amount of weeks, this time of the year, every year, this is closed off to human activity. We have to be able to demonstrate that kind of restraint. It is the 21st-century version of the kapu, and the kapu that I learned from the elders in my family — it wasn't about human deprivation, it wasn't like you as a human being are deprived of eating that fish. It was about recognizing that that fish during that time of the year, in this area, reproduces and so give them space, give them time. So we do have to adopt that attitude, I think it's about relearning how to live on an island. And that's what we've forgotten, we behave like we live on continents: the way we consume, the way we create waste, the way we treat waste. I actually believe that over the next generation or two, the visitor market is going to actually arc in that direction. They're going to look for that in making their choices of where to go.

RM90 exploring on the beach around naupaka plants (Hawaiian native plant).
Hawaii Marine Animal Response
RM90 exploring on the beach around naupaka plants (Hawaiian native plant).

When you can get human consciousness to elevate, followed by human action, and measurable results, and you can get a commercial market to buy into that, then Hawaiʻi will be on its way to re-achieving some level of balance here. Some of the conflicts we're experiencing now in tourism actually emanate from bad behavior by the visitor: touching the wildlife, and not respecting certain things. And I'm talking to frontline restaurant and hotel workers who see a difference in the clientele that they once served. Many of them point to this greater sense of entitlement. I think part of that is a result of living under restrictions for more than a year and having to take account of yourself and the way you act.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Aug. 16, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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