When John De Fries’s mom was in highschool within the Nineteen Forties, she was forbidden from dancing the hula and talking Hawaiian, the language of her ancestors. The college she attended was for kids of Hawaiian descent, however as an alternative of encouraging college students to embrace that heritage, it tried to erase it.
“That complete technology was the byproduct of this sweeping Americanization, Westernization,” Mr. De Fries recalled not too long ago. “What’s ironic is that, 51 years later, my mom’s great-granddaughter graduated from the identical faculty. And by then, fluency in native Hawaiian had develop into a requirement — nevertheless it took half a century to get there.”
In September 2020, when Hawaii’s tourism business was in pandemic-induced free fall, Mr. De Fries took excessive tourism function in his house state, changing into the primary native Hawaiian to carry the place. Because the president and chief government of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, he’s now accountable for supporting the business that, earlier than the pandemic, introduced in $2 billion in state tax income and employed greater than 200,000 folks.
The place he holds has not too long ago been in flux, Mr. De Fries instructed me once I reached him on a video name at his house on the Huge Island. Just a few years in the past, H.T.A.’s fundamental job was to model Hawaii and market the islands to potential guests. The company nonetheless does these issues, however lately its official remit has expanded to incorporate pure assets, neighborhood — and Hawaiian tradition.
Over the course of our dialog, Mr. De Fries, 71, described how the teachings he realized as a baby in Waikiki inform his work, what it felt like when Hawaii was empty of vacationers and why he obtained hooked on the tv present “The White Lotus,” which takes place in Hawaii.
Our dialog has been edited for size and readability.
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 Seashore, a half-block from Honolulu Zoo, so actually about 2,000 yards from the foot of Diamond Head. The waters there had been my household’s fishing grounds for a century earlier than I used to be born, and once I was rising up, we might fish them each week. What I realized as a child was that Waikiki was first a supply of meals, then it was a supply of drugs — from seaweeds and sea urchins and different issues — after which it was a spot of recreation and well-being. There was a hierarchical order there: meals, drugs, recreation. However within the growth of Waikiki, we inverted that order, and we put recreation on high.
In order we take into consideration making a regenerative mannequin for tourism, we now have to return to classes that we had been studying again within the day. Native Hawaiians all the time understood that their capacity to maintain life in the midst of the Pacific needed to do with residing contained in the boundaries of the pure surroundings. So once I have a look at the longer term and the alternatives we now have for tourism, I don’t see how we do it at scale except we begin to evolve a Twenty first-century model of that type of pondering. Not everyone within the business is prepared for that, however I don’t suppose we now have a selection.
Did the pandemic shift native attitudes towards Hawaii’s vacationers?
We ended 2019 with a report variety of customer arrivals: 10.4 million. And 6 months later, in July 2020, customer arrivals had been hovering round zero. I bear in mind I used to be standing on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki one night time at 9 p.m., and there was not a single transferring automobile in both path. It felt like a movie set, frankly — it was eerie. An financial collapse of that scale is sort of a giant constructing collapsing in on itself, and persons are trapped beneath. Individuals are getting damage.
However on the identical time, for the area people, it was euphoric, proper? No site visitors. No crowds on the seaside. The seaside parks had been open. The forest trails had been open. And native residents felt like we obtained our islands again. I skilled the euphoria, too. However I additionally knew it was just like the equal of a sugar excessive, as a result of there was this complete huge physique of labor that we must do to get this technique re-erected.
So how do you rebuild tourism in a approach that works for everybody?
Every island has developed its personal motion plan, so the reply to that query goes to be very island particular. The committees that developed these plans had been very various — you might need had a restaurant proprietor, a schoolteacher, a lodge proprietor. The entire intent of that planning course of was to offer the neighborhood the possibility to codesign and co-define what a sustainable mannequin of tourism may seem like. However basically, you’re going to have individuals who suppose 6 million guests a 12 months is sufficient. And also you’re going to have others saying we will do 10 million once more. So there’s that type of stress in that debate, however there’s additionally an settlement to be open-minded and civil within the dialogue.
“The White Lotus,” a tv present set in a fictional Hawaiian resort, has attracted quite a lot of consideration not too long ago. Have you ever seen the present?
I watched the primary episode and I assumed to myself, “That is fully ludicrous.” After which I couldn’t cease watching it. My spouse and I simply turned type of hooked on it, as a result of boy was it near some experiences I’ve had. Understanding full properly that there’s inventive license taken in it, I assumed they did an awesome job. Specifically, when the younger girl is having a dialogue with the native man who’s within the luau present and she or he acknowledges that the tradition is being marginalized and she or he’s asking, “How can this occur?” These are alarm bells which have been going off on the bottom right here for fairly a while. There’s a complete dialog about how one can construct folks’s capability to ship genuine cultural experiences and derive monetary profit for themselves and their households — however with out making folks really feel like they’re having to give up their very own energy.
How do you create cultural experiences for vacationers that don’t really feel exploitative?
Folks must really feel their cultural id and way of life is actually being valued. And I’m optimistic about it as a result of I consider the market goes to assist drive this transformation. You can not counterfeit tradition; you possibly can try and, however you’re not going to achieve success. So when the market begins calling for extra genuine cultural experiences, it is going to start to make business sense. As a result of so as to shift a system of this scale, the business drivers develop into actually necessary.
What message would you prefer to share with guests to Hawaii?
You already know, native residents have a accountability to host guests in a approach that’s acceptable. Conversely, guests have a accountability to remember that their vacation spot is somebody’s house, somebody’s neighborhood, somebody’s neighborhood. Approaching journey in that approach will produce higher experiences for each the customer and the native resident, so I’d encourage everybody to maintain that in thoughts. And luxuriate in your mai tai at sundown! Don’t neglect that.