Column: Keep, fix Hawaii Tourism Authority; add “green fees”

Hawaii is at a precarious point in its two-tiered tourism recovery. The natural resources that attract visitors here need restoration with the increasing impact of travelers on the coastline, mountain trails and other attractions.

Second, the industry has started to come back from the depths of the pandemic shutdown, but the work is not really done. The extent to which the Asian market will resume its traditional position in terms of visitor arrivals is still uncertain, and the initial influx of tourism to the US mainland has long since subsided.

The Legislature is poised to make two key changes to tourism management, one of which is critically needed before Hawaii’s precious natural resources are allowed to degrade further.

Senate Bill 304 is the surviving measure of several proposals to collect a visitor impact fee from tourists who would then be licensed to visit certain state parks, forest areas, hiking trails or other state natural areas.

Also described as a “green fee,” that was the direction lawmakers took, an approach that’s preferable to what Gov. Josh Green originally proposed: a fee that’s assessed by each tourist upon arrival.

Unfortunately, this more positive development is taking place in the context of a general upheaval in the way the country conducts its tourism policy. The selection of a new director of the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) is unsettled to begin with.

Nominee Chris Sadayasu ran into trouble during Thursday’s Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee hearing. Among other things, it was rightfully criticized for issuing a request for proposals for a tourism marketing contract without consulting the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA).

Sadayasu said the weather and the Sunshine Law did not allow him to consult before the next HTA meeting, but it could have been better planned to avoid the conflict.

Amid uncertainty about the overall direction of the department, the proposed restructuring of the HTA (Senate Bill 1522) comes at an inopportune time. Worse, there appears to be no good reason for the drastic overhaul, which would essentially make the HTA an entity under the DBEDT, like the Destination Management Office.

The House Tourism Committee considered both the green tax and HTA bills last week. Lawmakers in both chambers are seeking to refocus OST more narrowly on mitigating tourism’s impact on the island’s environment rather than marketing the industry.

The House panel, however, took a softer approach, adding funds and line items and voting to remove the Senate’s strongly punitive preamble in SB 1522.

This introductory section asserts that the HTA “failed to effectively fulfill its obligations to manage the tourism marketing plan for the state.” It chronicles the controversial awarding — and re-awarding — of management and marketing contracts, lays the blame squarely on HTA and seeks to disband the agency.

The contract scandal was mismanaged, but dismantling the HTA would be an unproductive disruption. Start a new agency instead of fixing the existing one, just as tourism is recovering? It is not a good idea.

Although the preamble to SB 1522 provided a dubious rationale for repealing the HTA by striking it from the bill, the House also did not replace it with any rationale. The original idea behind the HTA was that a single agency to oversee the state’s primary industry made sense.

Some 25 years later, it still makes sense — which is more than can be said for SB 1522.

In the meantime, it’s encouraging to be able to see the environmental benefits of SB 304’s “green fee.” It’s certainly nice that the visitor impact fee will be administered by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, keeping it separate from whatever is happening in tourism management.

The DLNR will determine the date to start the program through administrative rulemaking, a process that should begin as soon as possible. Under the current draft of the bill, the department will enable “convenient options for visitors to pay a visitor impact fee and be issued a license,” including through a mobile app and internet website.

The fee will be paid by any visitor aged 15 and over who wants access to the government areas, and the license will be valid for one year. The revenue will go into a special fund from which the DLNR can allocate money according to a strategic impact fee plan it will also develop. Grants may be awarded to counties and non-profit organizations, prioritizing projects that address the environmental stress that tourism and residential use may have caused to natural sites.

All of this represents a rational expansion of user fees already in place at some locations — among them Pali Lookout, Diamond Head and Haena State Park on Kauai.

SB 304 cites several tourist destinations around the world, including the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand and Palau, that have implemented such a plan with success. Done right, success can also be in the cards for Hawaii, a place blessed with natural resources that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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