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 varsity she attended was for kids of Hawaiian descent, however as a substitute 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 just lately. “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 turn out to be a requirement — however it took half a century to get there.”
In September 2020, when Hawaii’s tourism trade was in pandemic-induced free fall, Mr. De Fries took excessive tourism function in his house state, turning into the primary native Hawaiian to carry the place. Because the president and chief govt of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, he’s now accountable for supporting the trade that, earlier than the pandemic, brought in $2 billion in state tax income and employed greater than 200,000 individuals.
The place he holds has just lately been in flux, Mr. De Fries instructed me after I reached him on a video name at his house on the Huge Island. A number of years in the past, H.T.A.’s essential job was to model Hawaii and market the islands to potential guests. The company nonetheless does these issues, however today 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 bought 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 Nineteen Fifties. How does that have inform your work?
I used to be born and raised two blocks from Waikiki Seaside, 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 after 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 improvement of Waikiki, we inverted that order, and we put recreation on prime.
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 at all times understood that their skill to maintain life in the midst of the Pacific needed to do with dwelling contained in the boundaries of the pure setting. So after I take a look at the long run 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 sort of considering. Not all people within the trade 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 file 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 evening 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 massive constructing collapsing in on itself, and persons are trapped beneath. Persons are getting harm.
However on the similar time, for the area people, it was euphoric, proper? No site visitors. No crowds on the seashore. The seashore parks had been open. The forest trails had been open. And native residents felt like we bought 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 present the neighborhood the possibility to codesign and co-define what a sustainable mannequin of tourism may appear to be. However on the whole, you’re going to have individuals who suppose 6 million guests a yr is sufficient. And also you’re going to have others saying we will do 10 million once more. So there’s that sort of pressure 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 a whole lot of consideration just lately. Have you ever seen the present?
I watched the primary episode and I believed to myself, “That is utterly ludicrous.” After which I couldn’t cease watching it. My spouse and I simply turned sort 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 believed they did a terrific job. Particularly, when the younger girl is having a dialogue with the native man who’s within the luau present and he or she acknowledges that the tradition is being marginalized and he or she’s asking, “How can this occur?” These are alarm bells which were going off on the bottom right here for fairly a while. There’s an entire dialog about tips on how to construct individuals’s capability to ship genuine cultural experiences and derive monetary profit for themselves and their households — however with out making individuals 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 have to really feel their cultural id and way of life is in reality being valued. And I’m optimistic about it as a result of I imagine the market goes to assist drive this modification. You can not counterfeit tradition; you may 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 industrial sense. As a result of with a view to shift a system of this scale, the industrial drivers turn out to be actually necessary.
What message would you wish to share with guests to Hawaii?
You understand, native residents have a duty to host guests in a approach that’s acceptable. Conversely, guests have a duty to bear in mind 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 might encourage everybody to maintain that in thoughts. And revel in your mai tai at sundown! Don’t neglect that.