When John De Fries’ mother was in high school in the 1940s, she was not allowed to dance the hula and speak Hawaiian, the language of her ancestors. The school she attended was for children of Hawaiian descent, but instead of encouraging students to embrace that heritage, it tried to erase it.
“That whole generation was the by-product of this radical Americanization, westernization,” Mr. De Fries recently recalled. “The irony is that 51 years later, my mother’s great-granddaughter graduated from the same school. And by that time, fluent in native Hawaiian had become a requirement — but it took half a century to get there.”
In September 2020, as Hawaii’s tourism industry was in a pandemic-induced freefall, Mr. The Frisian assumed the most important tourist role in his home state and became the first Native Hawaiian to hold this position. As president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, he is now responsible for supporting the industry that, before the pandemic, brought in $2 billion in state tax revenue and employs more than 200,000 people.
The position he holds has been changing lately, Mr. De Fries told me when I reached him via video call at his home on the Big Island. A few years ago, HTA’s main job was to highlight Hawaii and market the islands to potential visitors. The agency still does those things, but today its official mission has expanded to include natural resources, community and Hawaiian culture.
During our conversation, Mr. De Fries, 71, described how the lessons he learned as a child in Waikiki influenced his work, what it felt like when Hawaii ran out of tourists and why he became addicted to the television program “The White Lotus”, which takes place in Hawaii.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in Waikiki in the 1950s. How does that experience determine your work?
I was born and raised two blocks from Waikiki Beach, half a block from Honolulu Zoo, so literally about 2,000 feet from the base of Diamond Head. The waters there were my family’s fishing grounds for a century before I was born, and growing up, we fished them every week. What I learned as a kid was that Waikiki was first a source of food, then a source of medicine – from seaweed and sea urchins and other things – and then it was a place of recreation and well-being. There was a hierarchical order there: food, medicine, recreation. But in developing Waikiki, we reversed that order and put recreation first.
So when we think about creating a regenerative model for tourism, we have to go back to lessons we learned in the past. Native Hawaiians always understood that their ability to live in the mid-Pacific had to do with living within the confines of the natural environment. So when I look at the future and the opportunities we have for tourism, I don’t see how we can do it on a large scale unless we start developing a 21st century version of that kind of thinking. Not everyone in the industry is ready for that, but I don’t think we have a choice.
Has the pandemic changed local attitudes toward Hawaii’s tourists?
We ended 2019 with a record number of visitors: 10.4 million. And six months later, in July 2020, visitor numbers hovered around zero. I remember standing on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki at 9pm one night, and there was not a single vehicle moving in either direction. It felt like a movie set, honestly – it was creepy. An economic collapse of that magnitude is like a large building collapsing on itself, and people are sitting underneath it. People get hurt.
But at the same time it was euphoric for the local community, right? No traffic. No crowds on the beach. The beach parks were open. The forest trails were open. And local residents felt that we were getting our islands back. I also experienced the euphoria. But I also knew it was the equivalent of a sugar high, because there was an enormous amount of work that we would have to do to get this system back on track.
So how do you rebuild tourism in a way that works for everyone?
Each island has developed its own action plan, so the answer to that question will be very island-specific. The committees that developed those plans were very diverse: you might have had a restaurant owner, a teacher, a hotel owner. The whole intent of that planning process was to give the community an opportunity to help design and define what a sustainable model of tourism might look like. But in general you have people who think that 6 million visitors a year is enough. And you’ll hear others say we can do another 10 million. So there’s that kind of tension in that debate, but there’s also an agreement to be open-minded and polite in the discussion.
“The White Lotus”, a TV show set in a fictional Hawaiian resort has been attracting a lot of attention lately. Have you seen the performance?
I watched the first episode and thought to myself, “This is completely ridiculous.” And then I couldn’t stop watching. My wife and I just got a little addicted to it as it was close to some of the experiences I’ve had. Knowing full well that there is a creative license in it, I thought they did a great job. Especially when the young woman has a discussion with the local man who is on the luau show and she acknowledges that the culture is being marginalized and she asks, “How could this happen?” Those are alarm bells that have been ringing here for quite some time. There’s a whole conversation going on about how people can build the capacity to provide authentic cultural experiences and gain financial benefit for themselves and their families – but without making people feel like they have to give up their own power.
How do you create cultural experiences for tourists who don’t feel exploitative?
People need to feel that their cultural identity and way of life is valued. And I’m optimistic about it because I believe the market will drive this change. You cannot fake culture; you can try, but you won’t succeed. So when the market starts asking for more authentic cultural experiences, it will make commercial sense. Because to shift a system of this scale, the commercial riders become really important.
What message would you like to share with visitors to Hawaii?
You know, local residents have a responsibility to receive visitors in an appropriate manner. Conversely, visitors have a responsibility to be aware that their destination is one’s home, one’s neighborhood, one’s community. Approaching travel in that way will bring better experiences to both the visitor and the local resident, so I would encourage everyone to keep that in mind. And enjoy your mai tai at sunset! Do not forget that.