New Hawaii Tourism Authority president discusses plans for tourism amid COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Tourism is one of the most important sectors in Hawaii.

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It has thousands of jobs and money on the line.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) will be taking the lead when it comes to getting Hawaii’s tourism industry back on track, and its new president and CEO John De Fries will be at the center.

De Fries stepped into the position on Sept. 16.

Since then, he said he has been working on a new set of programs centered around the idea of malama.

“We’re facing a common threat,” said De Fries. “No matter what industry you’re working in. No matter what island you’re on. The planet and our state are facing a common threat. To [defeat] it, we’re going to have to do it together… We’re going to have to malama the visitor, and educate the visitor on how to malama us.”

Part of that malama message is wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

To get tourism back up again, De Fries said we need to make Hawaii a safe place to visit. To do that COVID-19 numbers in the state have to be kept low and new practices at hotels need to be in place.

“We’re going to have to keep our workspace, our work environment at the standards, that before were reserved for hospitals and clinics… and that doesn’t happen overnight. That requires training that requires reinforcement.”

John De Fries,

He said different programs will be rolling out to push that message to the community and to visitors.

So far, they’ve seen a lot of interest from Japan, and have also been in talks with Korea, Canada and other Pacific countries.

One thing the Hawaii Tourism Authority is being mindful of is how the places it’s working with are handling the pandemic on their end.

“As soon as we can agree statistically, this market isn’t spiking [in COVID-19 numbers] in a way that is threatening Hawaii, we have the systems to deploy [marketing to that country] very quickly,” said De Fries.

As for mainland travel, they don’t expect big numbers. He is estimating about 5,000 visitors a day after the pre-travel testing program starts on Oct. 15. He said most people will be aware that everything will not be open, so they’re expecting certain types of travelers at first.

“The visitors in the first two and a half months will be motivated by certain intangibles of being here,” said De Fries. “It could be friends, it could be family, it could be nature.”

Another challenge the Hawaii Tourism Authority is facing is having to work with a much smaller budget this fiscal year, at about $48 million dollars. Last year’s budget was $86 million.

De Fries said they are reassessing their budget and are looking to partner with hotels and airlines to help with marketing while cutting down on costs.

A key part to growing the tourism industry is keeping the pre-travel testing in place.

He said if Hawaii Governor David Ige decides to revert back to the 14-day mandatory quarantine, it would be a giant setback to any progress.

Even with all the obstacles in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, John De Fries said he is up for the challenge.

“I understood the damage [the pandemic] would do and the opportunities that would be presented,” said De Fries. “I’m Keiki O Ka Aina. I’m born and raised here, and my Hawaiian roots go back from the first canoes that arrived here, and with that comes a deep sense of responsibility.”

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