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Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement wants to bring change to the visitor industry


Star Advertiser | By Allison Schaefers

Published August 8, 2022 at 1:13 AM HST

Why is the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement fighting to keep a tourism award that would allow it to manage Hawaii tourism, while shaping how United States travelers view the state?

Kuhio Lewis, CNHA president and CEO, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser it’s about “hulihia,” which means deep structural change. It was the theme of the nonprofit’s annual conference, which drew about 1,700 to the Sheraton Waikiki from July 19 to 22.

Lewis explained during his conference opening that CNHA has been demanding tourism change for years, and “when the opportunity presented itself to actually dive in and to create the change that we seek, we stepped up to the challenge. I commend (Hawaii Tourism Authority) for being bold. This is our kuleana (responsibility). This is our time and we are ready.”

HTA on June 2 selected CNHA for a multiyear U.S. tourism award worth more than $34 million during the first two years. However, HTA and CNHA cannot move forward on a contract until a June 21 protest from the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is settled.

HVCB originally won the U.S. contract in December; however, CNHA protested. HTA rescinded HVCB’s contract and began a new procurement with new requirements. The bureau is now alleging that HTA violated state procurement law by running an unfair process that predetermined CNHA as the winner of the re-solicitation.

State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism Director Mike McCartney has the authority through Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 103D, the Hawaii public procurement code, to attempt to resolve the protest by mutual agreement or to make a decision to uphold or deny the protest. Sources familiar with the process say CNHA and HVCB have met with McCartney to attempt to find a way forward.

In the meantime CNHA is growing its leadership role within Hawaii tourism, much as it gained the backing of important community and political leaders from its roles in the Mauna Kea movement and the Red Hill water crisis, and its management of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of COVID-19 pandemic relief programs.

CNHA’s nonprofit filings show its annual grants and contributions increased to $70 million in 2021 from just over $1 million annually in 2018.

“Over the last two years we’ve been working to uplift our community, not just Hawaiians,” Lewis told the Star-Advertiser. “We’ve infused over $150 million by way of federal funds to help stabilize all of Hawaii.”

Lewis said CNHA’s full-time staff also has grown to about 100 from 26 prior to the pandemic. Keeping the tourism contract will allow CNHA to continue growing once its pandemic programs end.

CNHA’s wide reach also has allowed it to advance Native Hawaiian perspectives relevant to broader community decision- making. For instance, CNHA said it supported Act 255 because it dramatically overhauls the management structure of Mauna Kea, placing the care of the land at the center of the state’s stewardship and Native Hawaiians at the decision- making table.

CNHA said the Red Hill crisis remains a top policy priority, as Native Hawaiians have always protected Hawaii’s fresh water as a necessity to survival in one of the most remote archipelagos in the world.

Gov. David Ige’s address on opening day of CNHA’s conference, as well as participation by all four county mayors in a regenerative- tourism panel, shows the nonprofit’s increasing political heft.

Ige said, “I am so excited to be here. When I look at the agenda for this conference, I have the opportunity to listen to the dynamic Kuhio Lewis, who is destined for even bigger things.”

“Stewardship of our precious natural and cultural resources, economic opportunities, including changing the narrative of tourism to be regenerative, we all fully support,” he said.

Critics, especially from Hawaii’s traditional visitor industry, have said CNHA does not have the tourism expertise to properly execute the contract. However, CNHA knows many of the Native Hawaiian and sustainability-oriented leaders, who are increasingly taking greater leadership roles in Hawaii’s visitor industry.

It was just 2020 when the HTA board adopted a strategic plan that emphasized destination management. The board also supported a request from Kalani Ka‘ana‘ana, who is now HTA chief brand officer, to help write the Aina Aloha Economic Futures. Many of the co-authors for that Hawaiian-led economic recovery agenda were kiai members interested in protecting Mauna Kea as a sacred site.

John De Fries, who was appointed HTA’s first Native Hawaiian president and CEO in September 2020, told CNHA’s conference attendees that it was these HTA board actions that inspired him to seek HTA’s top job. De Fries originally had been tapped by Ige’s administration to consider serving as senior special assistant, a role that would focus on identifying a Native Hawaiian reconciliation process, as well as Mauna Kea and Thirty Meter Telescope matters.

Lewis told the Star- Advertiser that De Fries inspired CNHA to apply for HTA’s U.S. contract.

“We believe that tourism can be done better, and it needs to be done better. It’s not just about representing our culture more authentically,” he said. “Tourism must contribute to the perpetuation of our traditions. It must contribute to the regrowth and regeneration of our aina. It must provide meaningful economic development opportunities that keep our people in Hawaii.”

The tourism contract is not the first time that one of CNHA’s attempts to broaden its reach has caused disruption. There was pushback in 2017 primarily from the Hawaiian Focused Charter Schools Alliance when the Office of Hawaiian Affairs selected CNHA to administer a $1.5 million grant to Hawaiian-focused charter schools over incumbent Kanu o ka Aina Learning Ohana. Eventually, OHA decided to distribute directly to the schools to maximize the amount of funds going to students.

In the case of Hawaii tourism, Lewis said that “such a transformative shift to Hawaii’s chief economic driver may be scary for those who want to maintain the current model. But change is necessary, and we are ready to deliver on the change that Hawaii desperately needs.”

Lewis is personally aware of the power of deep, transformative change. He was a high school dropout who turned his life around after becoming a single father at 17. Lewis eventually graduated from the University of Hawaii. He worked for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs before taking CNHA’s top job.

Nalu Andrade, owner of Na Maka Kahiko, which sells hand-carved jewelry, hair accessories and stamps and offers carving lessons, credits CNHA with helping him survive the pandemic.

“The pandemic devastated my business. My business was more hands-on working with people, going to schools, doing things for other businesses, and craft fairs. Everything went away,” Andrade said. “CNHA called up, and they were starting to help innovate our businesses. They gave me the opportunity to go online.”

Andrade said he also is selling merchandise through Pop-up Makeke, an HTA- supported online marketplace of Hawaii-based goods managed by CNHA, which also handles warehousing and order fulfillment.

Sheldon Aki Jr., who was practicing trucking skills Friday in a Kapolei parking lot, said CNHA’s Hawaiian Trades Academy commercial driver’s license class will help qualify him for a $4-an-hour raise.

“I came all the way from Maui to take the class,” Aki said. “This will be a big step up in my career. It’s important because I’ve got a family.”

Hawaiian Trades Academy Director Kamuela Barr said the CDL class is the academy’s 17th offering since its inception in 2019. Barr said the academy, which also has offered classes in police and fire work, carpentry and solar, has graduated 307 students and is seeking additional partnership opportunities.

Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said CNHA’s workforce development programs are attractive to the visitor industry, and partnerships are likely to emerge regardless of whether CNHA keeps the U.S. tourism contract.

Hannemann said resolution of the U.S. tourism contract is taking too long, and recommended that McCartney “make a decision to award the contract to one of the entities with the overall responsibility and with a clear understanding that both of them will be part of this new arrangement playing to the strengths that they will bring to the table.”

Former Gov. John Waihe‘e reflected on the potential for a historic tourism shift during the July 20 opening of CNHA’s annual convention. Waihe‘e, Hawaii’s first Native Hawaiian governor, said: “Were it not for (Ige’s administration), the pivot would not have been made so that CNHA could get the contract that they are now fighting for.

“Somebody had to stand up and begin that pivot — to begin to know that Hawaii is not just a pleasant destination, it is our home. That our cultures are not mere props to be carried out and dangled with convenience. That our people are not pawns to be utilized in a money game — they are our families.

Lewis and other members of CNHA’s team say they also have seen lives transformed through their workforce and community development programs, which provide access to housing funding, business capital and financial education services.

“You see this is the huli, the beginning of where we are.”

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