The Honolulu Star-Advertiser has used a considerable amount of space recently to imply the Hawaii Tourism Authority is operating secretly and its board of directors is complicit in this effort.
This characterization is false and an insult to the 12 volunteer board members who were appointed by our State lawmakers to perform this important service.
As HTA’s board chair, I can assure the public that we take our responsibilities very seriously. It should also be noted that I am an attorney, as are the board’s vice chairs, Craig Nakamura and Lorrie Stone.
A key fact excluded from the Star-Advertiser’s ongoing coverage is that a Deputy Attorney General is present at all times during HTA’s board meetings, including executive sessions, to guide the board and staff on its legal obligations.
Much of the Star-Advertiser’s criticism has focused on HTA’s use of executive sessions. These have been primarily used to confidentially address proprietary, competitive matters related to marketing the Hawaii Convention Center. The Center’s operator, AEG Facilities, provided HTA with innovative and exclusive strategies to make better use of this premier facility. Last year, the Center recorded a profit for the first time since opening in 1998.
Our monthly board meetings are open to the public. We have invited the chairs overseeing the Finance and Tourism committees in the State Senate and House of Representatives to attend our board meetings and executive sessions. We welcome their input and will answer any questions.
HTA has provided its full budget to these lawmakers and more than 95 percent has been publicly disclosed, including to the Star-Advertiser. The only budget information redacted from public disclosure, in accordance with State law, is HTA’s sponsorship fees for eight high-profile sports events that Hawaii could lose to competing destinations.
This is a real concern for HTA. Last year, a competing destination pursued one of our sports events and offered a larger sponsor fee. We had to double our financial commitment to keep the event in Hawaii.
I want to also assure the public that HTA is not outspending its annual budget of $82 million in State funds. HTA’s budget is funded through the Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) paid by guests staying in lodging statewide. The $82 million allocated to HTA from the TAT has remained constant since 2014, while the TAT revenues to the State continue to increase significantly. In this fiscal year, the State will receive an estimated $466 million from the TAT.
We did supplement our fiscal year budgets for 2016 and 2017 with HTA’s unspent, carryover funds from prior years. We utilized a relatively small amount of these available funds in 2016, $1.4 million, not $11.2 million as the Star-Advertiser reported, to help bolster our marketing activities in order to offset a projected slowdown. We were pleased to see that 2016 was a record year for Hawaii tourism.
Importantly, HTA’s reserve funds designated for emergency purposes and to fulfill statutory requirements are being protected and have not needed to be used.
I have found during my service on HTA’s board that marketing Hawaii, in spite of our State’s many attributes, is a tough challenge. Hawaii faces intense global competition.
HTA is doing an excellent job promoting our Aloha State and is innovative with its thinking and strategies in marketing Hawaii. I firmly believe the work of HTA is part of the reason that Hawaii tourism is doing so well.
We acknowledge improvements can always be made and are committed to doing so. We look forward to collaborating with lawmakers and tourism’s leaders to keep Hawaii’s #1 industry strong and healthy.