A Conversation with Hawaii’s First Native Tour Leader

When John De Fries’s mother was in high school in the 1940s, she was prohibited from hula dancing and speaking Hawaiian, the language of her ancestors. The school he attended was for children of Hawaiian descent, but instead of encouraging students to embrace that heritage, he tried to erase it.

“That whole generation was the byproduct of this radical Americanization, Westernization,” de Fries recently recalled. “The irony is that 51 years later, my mother’s great-granddaughter graduated from the same school. And by then, fluency in native Hawaiian had become a requirement, but it took half a century to get there.”

In September 2020, when Hawaii’s tourism industry was in a pandemic-induced free fall, Mr. De Fries assumed the chief tourism position in his home state, becoming the first native Hawaiian to hold the position. As President and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, he is now responsible for supporting the industry that, before the pandemic, generated $2 billion in state tax revenue and employed more than 200,000 people.

His position has changed recently, Mr. De Fries told me when I caught up with him on a video call at his home on the Big Island. A few years ago, HTA’s primary job was to promote Hawaii and market the islands to potential visitors. The agency still does those things, but these days its official mandate has broadened to include Hawaiian natural resources, community and culture.

Over the course of our conversation, Mr. De Fries, 71, described how the lessons he learned growing up in Waikiki inform his work, how he felt when Hawaii was empty of tourists, and why he got hooked on the TV show “ The White Lotus,” which takes place in Hawaii.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I was born and raised two blocks from Waikiki Beach, half a block from the Honolulu Zoo, literally 2,000 yards from the foot of Diamond Head. The waters there had been my family’s fishing grounds for a century before I was born, and as a child, we fished in them every week. What I learned as a child was that Waikiki was first a source of food, then it was a source of medicine, seaweed and sea urchins and other things, and then it was a place of recreation and wellness. There was a hierarchical order: 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 the lessons that we were learning in the past. Native Hawaiians always understood that their ability to sustain life in the middle of the Pacific had to do with living within the limits of the natural environment. So when I look at the future and the opportunities that we have for tourism, I don’t see how we do it at 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.

We closed 2019 with a record number of visitor arrivals: 10.4 million. And six months later, in July 2020, visitor arrivals hovered around zero. I remember standing on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki one night at 9:00 pm and there was not a single vehicle moving in any direction. It felt like a movie set, frankly it was creepy. An economic collapse of that scale is like a huge building collapsing in on itself and people are trapped underneath. People are getting hurt.

But at the same time, for the local community, it was euphoric, right? Without traffic. No crowds on the beach. The beach parks were open. The forest trails were open. And the local residents felt that we took back our islands. I also experienced the euphoria. But I also knew that it was like the equivalent of a sugar rush, because there was all this enormous work that we would have to do to put this system back together.

Each island has developed its own action plan, so the answer to that question will be very specific to each island. The committees that developed those plans were very diverse: it could have been a restaurant owner, a school teacher, a hotel owner. The whole intent of that planning process was to give the community the opportunity to co-design and co-define what a sustainable model of tourism could look like. But, in general, there will be people who think that 6 million visitors a year is enough. And there will be others who say we can do 10 million again. So there’s that kind of tension in that debate, but there’s also an agreement to be open-minded and civil in the discussion.

I watched the first episode and thought, “This is completely ridiculous.” And then I couldn’t stop watching it. My wife and I got hooked a bit, because it was close to some experiences I’ve had. Knowing full well that creative license has been taken, I thought they did a great job. In particular, when the young woman is having an argument with the local boy who is at the luau show and recognizes that the culture is being marginalized and she asks, “How can this happen?” Those are alarm bells that have been ringing here for quite some time. There is a whole conversation about building people’s capacity to provide authentic cultural experiences and financial benefits for themselves and their families, but without making people feel like they have to give up their own power.

People need to feel that their cultural identity and way of life are being valued. And I’m optimistic about that because I think the market will help drive this change. Culture cannot be falsified; you can try, but you will not succeed. So when the market starts demanding more authentic cultural experiences, it will start to make business sense. Because to change a system of this scale, business drivers become really important.

You know, local residents have a responsibility to welcome visitors in an appropriate manner. Rather, visitors have a responsibility to be aware that their destination is someone’s home, someone’s neighborhood, someone’s community. Approaching travel in this way will produce better experiences for both the visitor and the local resident, so I encourage everyone to keep this in mind. And enjoy your mai tai at sunset! Don’t forget that.

paige mcclanahanA regular contributor to the Travel section, he is also the host of best travel podcast.

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