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Hawaii tourism finds itself in deeper troubles

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Marion Higa, Hawaii’s state auditor, is probably not the biggest fan of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) at the moment.

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Marion Higa, Hawaii’s state auditor, is probably not the biggest fan of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) at the moment. For one thing, Higa has some serious issues with the ways the HTA has conducted its business of promoting Hawaii in recent years.

Higa’s report claimed that the audit focused on three multi-year contracts, each exceeding US$15 million over the life of the contract, awarded by the HTA to the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau (HVCB), Hawaii Tourism Japan, and SMG, the marketer and operator of the Hawaii Convention Center. “We reviewed the authority’s processes and controls that guide contractor performance and ensure compliance with applicable laws,” Higa said. “We also contracted with a consultant to perform an agreed-upon procedures audit of the HVCB.”

In the audit, Higa also said: “We found that the authority’s year-to-year approach to planning and program implementation hinders its ability to strategically manage the long-term growth of Hawaii’s visitor industry. We also found that the authority no longer has a functional strategic plan of its own, and its annual budget, the only plan it has, provides no long-term strategies to fulfill the goals of the Hawaii Tourism Strategic Plan: 2005 – 2015, the state’s overall tourism road map.”

One of Higa’s glaring findings seems to center on the HTA’s procedure itself. “By choosing to map out their strategy and appropriate funds on a year-to-year basis, HTA officials have returned to the approach to tourism promotion that it was created to replace,” Higa said.

Higa added, “We found the HTA’s role as the lead entity and advocate of the tourism industry is significantly weakened by its inability to provide measurable results for its major marketing contractors.”

The audit, which was released Wednesday, January 14, 2009, is the second on the HTA and its major contractors and is required by law to be conducted every five years.

Higa’s audit also found that the HTA has spent almost US$270 million in state funds, or 90 percent of its marketing funds, to attract visitors from North America and Japan since its last audit in 2004.

Before this current imbroglio, the HTA was busy looking for a new president following the sacking of Rex Johnson, who was fired for using his state computer to forward racist, sexist, and pornographic e-mails. As it stands, the HTA has no leadership and has not, so far, issued a formal statement regarding the audit. “Maybe tomorrow,” said Janna Nakagawa of the HTA in an exclusive, albeit very brief, chat with eTN.

Good for the HTA, for now at least, as the HVCB and Marsha Wienert, Hawaii’s tourism liaison, have both declined to issue a statement regarding the audit.

eTN reached HVCB’s Jay Talkwar, who is the organization’s vice president of marketing, and he said, “Actually, the Hawaii Tourism Authority is the organization that you need to talk to.”

For her part, Wienert said, “I have gone through the audit, but I am not going to comment on it because Kelvin Bloom, the chair of HTA, will serve as the spokesperson for the HTA and anything that has to do with the audit.”

Asked if she is not allowed to comment on the audit, Wienert said, “It has nothing to do with being allowed to comment on it, I choose not to.”

To those who have been paying attention, the current scrutiny over the HTA’s practices is a case of déjà vu, as this is not the first time the HTA has found itself in the hot seat because of its chosen companies to market Hawaii tourism. In a not so distant past, the HTA had fired the HVCB only to find itself hiring HVCB again.

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About the author


Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.