When John De Fries’s mother was in highschool within the Nineteen Forties, she was forbidden from dancing the hula and speaking Hawaiian, the language of her ancestors. The varsity she attended was for kids of Hawaiian descent, but as an alternative of encouraging students to embrace that heritage, it tried to erase it.
“That whole generation was the byproduct of this sweeping Americanization, Westernization,” Mr. De Fries recalled recently. “What’s ironic is that, 51 years later, my mother’s great-granddaughter graduated from the identical school. And by then, fluency in native Hawaiian had turn into a requirement — nevertheless it took half a century to get there.”
In September 2020, when Hawaii’s tourism industry was in pandemic-induced free fall, Mr. De Fries took excessive tourism role in his home state, becoming the primary native Hawaiian to carry the position. Because the president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, he’s now answerable for supporting the industry that, before the pandemic, brought in $2 billion in state tax revenue and employed greater than 200,000 people.
The position he holds has recently been in flux, Mr. De Fries told me once I reached him on a video call at his home on the Big Island. A number of years ago, H.T.A.’s fundamental job was to brand Hawaii and market the islands to potential visitors. The agency still does those things, but today its official remit has expanded to incorporate natural resources, community — and Hawaiian culture.
Over the course of our conversation, Mr. De Fries, 71, described how the teachings he learned as a toddler in Waikiki inform his work, what it felt like when Hawaii was empty of tourists and why he got hooked on the tv show “The White Lotus,” which takes place in Hawaii.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in Waikiki within the Fifties. How does that have inform your work?
I used to be born and raised two blocks from Waikiki Beach, a half-block from Honolulu Zoo, so literally about 2,000 yards from the foot of Diamond Head. The waters there had been my family’s fishing grounds for a century before I used to be born, and once I was growing up, we’d fish them every week. What I learned as a child was that Waikiki was first a source of food, then it was a source of medication — from seaweeds and sea urchins and other things — after which it was a spot of recreation and well-being. There was a hierarchical order there: food, medicine, recreation. But in the event of Waikiki, we inverted that order, and we put recreation on top.
In order we take into consideration making a regenerative model for tourism, we’ve to return to lessons that we were learning back within the day. Native Hawaiians all the time understood that their ability to sustain life in the course of the Pacific needed to do with living contained in the boundaries of the natural environment. So once I have a look at the long run and the opportunities we’ve for tourism, I don’t see how we do it at scale unless we begin to evolve a Twenty first-century version of that sort of considering. Not everybody within the industry is prepared for that, but I don’t think we’ve a alternative.
Did the pandemic shift local attitudes toward Hawaii’s tourists?
We ended 2019 with a record variety of visitor arrivals: 10.4 million. And 6 months later, in July 2020, visitor arrivals were hovering around zero. I remember I used to be standing on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki one night at 9 p.m., and there was not a single moving vehicle in either direction. It felt like a movie set, frankly — it was eerie. An economic collapse of that scale is sort of a large constructing collapsing in on itself, and persons are trapped underneath. Persons are getting hurt.
But at the identical time, for the local people, it was euphoric, right? No traffic. No crowds on the beach. The beach parks were open. The forest trails were open. And native residents felt like we got our islands back. I experienced the euphoria, too. But I also knew it was just like the equivalent of a sugar high, because there was this whole massive body of labor that we’d need to do to get this technique re-erected.
So how do you rebuild tourism in a way that works for everybody?
Each island has developed its own motion plan, so the reply to that query goes to be very island specific. The committees that developed those plans were very diverse — you would possibly have had a restaurant owner, a schoolteacher, a hotel owner. The entire intent of that planning process was to offer the community the possibility to codesign and co-define what a sustainable model of tourism might seem like. But typically, you’re going to have individuals who think 6 million visitors a yr is enough. And also you’re going to have others saying we will do 10 million again. So there’s that sort of tension in that debate, but there’s also an agreement to be open-minded and civil within the discussion.
“The White Lotus,” a television show set in a fictional Hawaiian resort, has attracted a whole lot of attention recently. Have you ever seen the show?
I watched the primary episode and I believed to myself, “This is totally ludicrous.” After which I couldn’t stop watching it. My wife and I just became sort of hooked on it, because boy was it near some experiences I’ve had. Knowing full well that there’s creative license taken in it, I believed they did an ideal job. Particularly, when the young woman is having a discussion with the local guy who’s within the luau show and she or he recognizes that the culture is being marginalized and she or he’s asking, “How can this occur?” Those are alarm bells which were going off on the bottom here for quite a while. There’s an entire conversation about how one can construct people’s capability to deliver authentic cultural experiences and derive financial profit for themselves and their families — but without making people feel like they’re having to give up their very own power.
How do you create cultural experiences for tourists that don’t feel exploitative?
People have to feel their cultural identity and way of life is actually being valued. And I’m optimistic about it because I think the market goes to assist drive this alteration. You can not counterfeit culture; you may try and, but you’re not going to achieve success. So when the market starts calling for more authentic cultural experiences, it should begin to make industrial sense. Because in an effort to shift a system of this scale, the industrial drivers turn into really essential.
What message would you prefer to share with visitors to Hawaii?
You already know, local residents have a responsibility to host visitors in a way that is suitable. Conversely, visitors have a responsibility to remember that their destination is someone’s home, someone’s neighborhood, someone’s community. Approaching travel in that way will produce higher experiences for each the visitor and the local resident, so I’d encourage everyone to maintain that in mind. And revel in your mai tai at sunset! Don’t forget that.