John De Fries on his first full (and very eventful) year at the helm of the HTA

It has been an eventful first 15 months for Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO John De Fries. He took the post in September 2020, just as the state debuted its Safe Travels program for screening arrivals and welcomed visitors back to the Islands. Under De Fries, the HTA has restructured, began implementation of county-specific destination management plans and rolled out the Malama Hawaii voluntourism campaign, all while responding to a midyear surge in visitation followed by a steep downturn after the delta variant triggered a new wave of restrictions. De Fries recently spoke with Travel Weekly’s hotels editor, Tovin Lapan, about the lessons of 2021 and plans for 2022.

Q: Omicron is reinforcing the argument that Covid is here to stay and more variants can be expected. What does that mean for Hawaii tourism and state protocols?

A: I believe that some form of Safe Travels Hawaii is going to live on, and we’re going to have to get better at it. It will have to be a much more efficient way of having information about the health status of people arriving without infringing upon their privacy. There are things about Safe Travels that have been less than user-friendly, but I do think that there are refinements going forward that would enable it to be an efficient tool to protect the safety of the community, protect the safety of the visitor and give us a communication tool that enables us to deal with future variants or future issues that may be affecting the globe, or maybe just affecting us in Hawaii, like a tsunami warning.

Q: Cruise ships were banned in Hawaii through the end of 2021. What’s the latest on plans for their return?

A: Any cruise ship that wants to restart has to reach a memorandum of understanding with the state of Hawaii, our Department of Transportation and the harbors division.

All cruise ships are going to be required to arrive in Honolulu first because of safety measures. Norwegian Cruise Lines has come to an agreement with our state agencies, and in late January they are looking to resume an inter-island cruise. To their credit, they are starting off with reduced capacity and a requirement that everyone onboard, crew and guests, be fully vaccinated and tested for Covid prior to boarding. 

This is a relaunch that is not on a vertical trajectory as much as a measured pace, because you’ve got all of these variables they’re dealing with.

  • Related: When, and where, can Americans cruise?

Q: What main areas are you focused on for 2022?

A: I’d like to see the Malama campaign continue to grow. I think the market is arching over time toward more authentic experiences, and those cannot be imported or fabricated. The source of authenticity is most often in the community, and that has the dual effect of elevating the visitor-satisfaction metric in addition to elevating the resident sentiment. But we started these programs, then a Covid spike would come and we’d have to back off of them. So we still haven’t established an operating rhythm.

Another thing is our convention center has been occupied for the last 18 months by state agencies providing community services, and, by the start of the new year, most will have returned to their normal headquarters. So, I’m looking forward to accelerating our booking pace in that market, especially since the major conventions tend to book three, five or seven years out.

Third is international travels’ return. At the HTA board meetings we debate almost monthly how much messaging to put into these markets like Japan, which are extremely important but currently shut down. The board and staff ultimately supported continued messaging because we feel that has contributed to historic pent-up demand. When travel does resume, they will be well informed and ready to visit Hawaii.

The fourth thing will be how HTA can work with Hawaii manufacturers and small businesses to accelerate the exportation of locally made products. It will create more business opportunities but is also a way of increasing tax revenue without being wholly dependent on the number of visitors to the Islands. 

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