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UHERO: Hawaii Needs to Focus on Developing Good Governance in Managing Tourism
By UHERO @ 12:14 AM :: 1801 Views :: Tourism

Hawaii Needs to Focus on Developing Good Governance in Managing Tourism

by Paul Brewbaker, Frank Haas, and James Mak, UHERO, October 13, 2021

In order to develop and apply policies for tourism in destinations, there is usually a requirement for knowledge, thought, the application of power, resources and rules, and also coordination and cooperation among numerous actors. Together, these are the key features of governance. -- Bill Bramwell, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

At the start of 2020, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA)—a semi-autonomous State government agency—issued its 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. More than a year later, it issued individual island action plans that describe the specific actions HTA would take to “rebuild, redefine and reset tourism’s direction over a three/four year period [2021-2024]…”

The 2020-2025 Strategic Plan and its companion destination management action plans (DMAPs) are not the first tourism plans that the State has crafted. The first State tourism functional plan—a ten-year plan—was adopted in 1980. Until now, the State’s policy toward tourism has been to accommodate its growth. With HTA’s new DMAPs, that is about to change! For example, one action in HTA’s DMAP for O‘ahu calls for HTA, in collaboration with State and County agencies and community groups, to “decrease the total number of visitors to O‘ahu to a manageable level by controlling the number of visitor accommodations and exploring changes to land use, zoning and airport policies.” There are similar actions in the other islands’ DMAPs. That caught our attention. We are not convinced that HTA can achieve this or many of the other actions because they lie beyond HTA’s capacity. We explain why in this essay. (We set aside for another day a discussion of whether reducing the number of visitors would actually be good for the community.) 

O‘ahu’s  Destination Management Action Plan, 2021-2024    

In the O‘ahu DMAP, the tourism vision for the island says: “By 2024, together with the community, the visitor industry will be rooted in mālama — to take care of this place and each other. O‘ahu will live in joy, abundance, and resilience because visitors and residents understand what is pono, and have respect for each other and the environment.”

To realize this vision, HTA’s O‘ahu Steering Committee (invited stakeholders representing the visitor industry, non-tourism businesses, the community, and other nonprofit organizations) developed ten actions (A-J) to be completed between 2021 and 2024. At the top of the list, Action A aims to reduce the number of visitors on O‘ahu. The remaining actions call for improving infrastructure and managing visitor sites; implement a pre- and post-arrival tourism communications program to encourage respectful and supportive behavior; identify sites and implement stewardship plans for key hotspots; establish a “regenerative tourism fee” to fund protection of Hawai‘i’s natural resources, and others. The actions are further broken down into 45 specific actions/activities (e.g. A.1, A.2…B.1, B.2…) with responsibilities delegated to a range of government and non-governmental organizations either in lead or supporting roles. HTA has the lead responsibility in 33 activities and a supporting role in 10 of them. Non-HTA organizations expected to participate include several State agencies  (Department of Transportation, Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Public Utilities Commission, Department of Agriculture, Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism), Hawai‘i Invasive Species Council, the County, the “community/communities”, O‘ahu Visitors Bureau, Global Marketing Team, Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau, Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, private land owners, and the private sector/private industry/visitor industry.

HTA destination action plans for the individual Neighbor Islands similarly include over 150 planned actions/activities to be completed by 2023.

As correctly pointed out by Castle High School senior, Jamie Hirano, in her recent Star-Advertiser op-ed column (“Addressing flaws in HTA’s new plan,” September 8, 2021), a difficult obstacle stands in the way of achieving the HTA action plans:  “HTA lacks authority over state and county agencies.” We made the same point in our 2019 University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) white paper, “Charting A New Course for Hawaii Tourism.”  One member of the O‘ahu DMAP Steering Committee further questioned whether the specified agencies are aware of their assigned responsibilities and whether they are even in agreement with the action plans assigned to them (“Culture and Tourism”,  Star-Advertiser, September 26, 2021).   

Unfortunately, the action plans don’t consider what it would cost to implement the proposed actions or where the funding will come from. That makes it hard to evaluate the benefits versus costs of implementing these actions. It is a serious shortcoming as State lawmakers passed legislation during the last session requiring HTA to compete for funding from the general fund; moreover, there is no guarantee that other agencies have funds available for DMAP projects.  

The Need to Focus on Tourism Governance

Hawai‘i has been very good at crafting tourism plans that involve broad community input. The problem has been ineffective implementation due to ineffective governance. Bill Bramwell (Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2011) opines that destinations that want to promote sustainable tourism are more likely to succeed when there is effective governance. Maria de la Cruz Pulido-Fernandez and Juan Ignacio Pulido-Fernandez (Sustainability, 2019) define governance in tourism succinctly as “a process whereby different stakeholders interact in order to solve problems and find opportunities for the different sectors involved … It is the coordinated participation of all stakeholders in the tourist destination with a view to achieving shared goals.” An effective governance system is one that is able to provide horizontal coordination (i.e. coordination across State agencies), vertical coordination (i.e. coordination between State and county agencies) and interaction with the industry, the community and all other stakeholders. 

What remains unclear is who should be responsible for coordination, and how does the coordinator get tourism stakeholders to cooperate and agree to implement and fund programs? Examining Hawai‘i’s experience in tourism governance may yield useful insights into why well-meaning tourism plans often are not successfully implemented.

HTA and Tourism Governance in Hawai‘i

That Hawai‘i does not have effective tourism governance was publicly acknowledged in HTA’s FY2015 Annual Report to the Hawai‘i State Legislature:

“In 2015, the HTA developed a new 5-year strategic plan to replace the previous 10-year plan adopted in 2004. The Hawai‘i Tourism Strategic Plan 2005-2015 was organized as an overall ‘state’ plan for tourism [not just an HTA agency plan] that designated government agencies or various private-sector groups as the lead agencies responsible for some of the plan’s key initiatives. In reality, the HTA did not have sufficient authority or resources to require others to help carry out that plan, or to constantly monitor and oversee what was being done by others. Therefore, the new [2016] Hawai‘i Tourism Authority Strategic Plan (HTASP) is an ‘HTA’ plan only, though it recognizes the need to work with partners and stakeholders. This approach is intended to increase the odds the HTASP can be successfully implemented, give clear guidance on priorities, and permit accurate measures of success and progress.”

HTA is not at fault for taking the initiative to “work around” the management and fiscal constraints imposed upon it; nonetheless, a governance model that recognizes the need for long term planning, budgeting, and cross-jurisdictional management would better address these challenges. 

Likewise, HTA’s current 2020-2025 Strategic Plan focuses “primarily on what HTA can do on its own, and secondarily, what it hopes to do in partnership with other private and public organizations” (emphasis added). As the latest HTA tourism strategic and action plans are not State plans, they only required approval by the HTA board and not by state lawmakers or other agencies. Why should we expect the outcome to be any different this time? To be sure, there has been an important change in program priorities at HTA as it pivots from tourism marketing to greater emphasis on destination management. A recent Star-Advertiser editorial (“Good start for better tourism”, October 4, 2021) noted that some progress is being made. But HTA, despite its good intentions, is still plagued by structural shortcomings that have not been remedied. 

In tourism governance, the State and other stakeholders depend on each other to work effectively to achieve common goals. Hawai‘i does not have a tourism governance system that facilitates coordination and collaboration among divergent stakeholders. By contrast, Noel Scott and Giuseppe Marzano (Tourism Recreational Research, 2015) note that in Australia horizontal and vertical coordination are achieved “through participation in working groups, as well as regular meetings of all Commonwealth State and Territory tourism ministers who gather at least once annually to provide direction to reform and implementation of its [National Long-Term Tourism] Strategy.” 

In our 2019 white paper — Charting A New Course for Hawaii Tourism — we argued that three conditions are required to successfully manage a destination:

1.) Authority to take action,

2.) Sufficient resources to implement actions, and

3.) A long-term strategic view. 

Hawai‘i doesn’t meet these conditions. What is needed is a system that is able to govern tourism across jurisdictions, agencies, functions and stakeholder groups. It must have the authority to marshal the expertise and resources of other agencies in addressing tourism’s challenges. The long-term solution for tourism sustainability will require buy in and participation from a broad range of stakeholders. 

In late 2019, the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative (ISTI) and the Harvard Extension School held a forum on tourism policy and governance. The main conclusion/recommendation to come out of the forum is that “effective governance requires new organizational systems to ensure sustainability is embedded into the future management of tourism” and that “creation of interlinked government bodies will be necessary.” In other words, HTA cannot do it by itself. Nor can the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT). Developing good governance is a team exercise.  

Some destinations have created separate organizations with broad community representation to coordinate and implement their strategic tourism plans. For example, the City of Edinburgh (UK) employs a ‘collective leadership approach’ to implement its Edinburgh Tourism 2020  Strategy. The City formed the Strategic Implementation Group (SIG) which “brings together senior stakeholders from across the tourism sector who collectively are responsible for overseeing the successful delivery of the strategy.”

In July 2016, Barcelona’s City Council approved the establishment of a Tourism Council “which aims to represent the general public as a whole as well as the sector. It is chaired by the Mayor and composed of representatives from the general public and neighbourhood sector, the tourist sector, the commerce and catering sector, culture and sport, trade unions, environmental, social and territorial groups, experts and municipal professionals, as well as representatives from each of the municipal political groups.” It is only an advisory body.  Inter-departmental co-ordination of tourism is achieved through the Tourism Council, the Tourism and City Municipal Working Group (a municipal inter-departmental working group), and the Tourism Management Working Group “which coordinate municipal service initiatives.” In both Edinburgh and Barcelona, new institutions were created to facilitate plan implementation. 

In the U.S., the federal government recognizes that successful implementation of the National Travel and Tourism Strategy (2019 Update) requires “better coordination within the federal government…[and] with the private sector and state, territorial, tribal, and local governments.” To that end, it has a Tourism Policy Council with “high-level representation by each member agency, organize working groups aligned with [the] National Travel and Tourism Strategy, and meet at least annually to identify and address barriers to progress and coordinate efforts.” 


Hawai‘i began to craft strategic tourism plans beginning in the 1970s. Over the years, plan objectives have remained largely unchanged. For example, the O‘ahu DMAP 2021-2024 lists six objectives: (1) create positive contributions to the quality of life for O‘ahu’s residents; (2) Support the maintenance, enhancement, and protection of O‘ahu’s natural resources; (3) Ensure the authentic Hawaiian culture is perpetuated and accurately presented; (4) Maintain and improve visitor satisfaction; (5) Strengthen tourism’s economic contribution to O‘ahu; and (6) Increase communication and understanding between the residents and visitor industry. These laudable objectives have been repeated over and over again. While the objectives haven’t changed, the actions required to attain them have changed. That is as it should be since circumstances have changed over time; for one thing, overtourism has become a much larger social issue since the 1970s. The problem with Hawai‘i’s strategic planning process for tourism is that Hawai‘i has put massive efforts into developing tourism plans but has put little effort and thought into developing a governance system to ensure that plans are successfully implemented. That has to change.


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