HTA's leader will need great vision, courage


POSTED: Sunday, February 01, 2009

We have seen last Thursday's headlines: “;Visitor arrivals drop 16.5 percent.”; Are we surprised? Of course we are not. With the state of the economy in disarray, a decline in tourism is to be expected. However, it would be wrong to hang all the blame on the economy. While consumer spending has declined, it is a fact that people still travel and take vacations. The difference is that right now, the availability exceeds the demand and consumers have plenty of choices as to where to go to get the best value for their money.

The time has come for we in Hawaii to do some self-examination and make up our minds as to what we want to be as a tourist destination. Hawaii seems to have lost its identity as an affordable and desirable tropical paradise with beautiful weather, pristine beaches, unspoiled scenery and plenty of aloha spirit. A paradise that welcomed visitors with open arms, offered them relaxing and lazy days in the sun and all at a price that was affordable. We had a blend of new and older buildings, restaurants and little stores that were attractive and fun to visit. Hawaii had a perfect niche with the average American and foreign visitor. Waikiki welcomed kamaainas with special warmth, making us feel that we belonged here and that our money was as good as any.

Then came the frenzy of the '90s and suddenly it all changed. Japanese tourists arrived with their appetite for designer clothes and designer accessories, and we were mesmerized and seduced by their spending power. Quick-thinking developers and shortsighted hotel executives rushed to redesign Hawaii. Up went a glut of nondescript skyscrapers, fancy but useless shopping malls and trendy restaurants that few could afford to patronize. Gone were the affordable family hotels, the affordable eateries and the cute though somewhat passe little shops. The price of the new and refurbished hotels, shops and restaurants made it off limits for most residents and visitors alike.

But now maybe it is time to realize that we are not the high rollers' playground that we dreamed of being, and never will be. With reasonable improvements, we might need to go back to the basics. Initially it might be financially painful to some but, in the long run, it could be a permanent cure for our debilitated tourism industry.

We soon will have a new CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Hopefully it will be someone with the vision and the know-how to lead Hawaii's tourism industry back to good health. To do so, the new CEO will need to bring new solutions and be armed with the courage and determination to implement them. And he will need the support of the state officials as well as the industry leaders.

When the economy recovers, and it always does, hopefully Hawaii will once again have identified its niche, learned the visitors' needs and wants and understood the very fact that Hawaii was loved for what once was - Hawaii.


Franco Mancassola, a frequent contributor to the Star-Bulletin opinion pages, founded Discovery Air and Debonair Airways. He also was vice president of international operations for Continental Airlines and World Airways. He lives in Hawaii Kai.