Setting the future of Hawaii Tourism: Native Hawaiian John de Fries new CEO of HTA

The Hawaii Travel and Tourism Industry is at a standstill with an unforeseen future. Chris Tatum, the last CEO and President of the State agency in charge of tourism, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, went into early retirement and moved to Colorado this week, and his job was up for takes in the most difficult time Hawaii ever faced.

It takes a person with a vision to lead and rebuild the most important industry in Hawaii, the travel and tourism industry. This person may be John de Fries.

Many expect mass and over-tourism will be an issue of the past. A new normal is emerging, and it must consider the environment and the Hawaiian culture. COVID-19 became a wake-up call for Hawaii, not only for health and economic reasons but also for the fragile environment.

John de Fries could just be the man able to understand this delicate and difficult situation.

The Board of the Hawaii Tourism Authority is setting the tone for such a future in nominating John De Fries for the difficult job to rebuild travel in the Aloha State after COVID-19. If John De Fries accepts the offer, he would become the first Native Hawaiian to serve as HTA’s president and CEO.

Born and raised in a Waikiki Beach neighborhood on the island of Oahu, John De Fries grew up surrounded by family elders who were steeped in the traditions of the Hawaiian culture. At the same time, Waikiki Beach was well on its way to becoming a global tourist destination. While the beach offered recreational venues to visitors and local residents alike, De Fries also recalls the ocean as a valued source of food and medicine for his family and neighbors. This childhood setting embedded in him a life-long awareness of, and respect for, the symbiotic relationships that exist between community and culture, nature, and commerce.

Utilizing 20 years of experience, De Fries established Native Sun Business Group, Inc. in 1993. The business consulting and project management firm focused primarily on client engagements within Hawaii’s hospitality and real estate development industries. The previous position as an advisor to the County of Hawaii, De Fries was been tasked with facilitating the County’s efforts in the Hawaii Green Growth Initiative — a statewide effort to bring together leaders from the energy, food, and environmental sectors to measure the collective progress being made toward specific sustainability goals. In this capacity, De Fries guided the County in preparing for the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which convened at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu in 2016.

In recent years, De Fries has been invited to rare learning opportunities in Hawaii. He has engaged with His Holiness, The Dali Lama; members of the Rapid Evaluation Team from Google X; Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first female prime minister of Norway; Hina Jilani, a renowned lawyer, pro-democracy campaigner, and a leading activist in Pakistan’s women’s movement; Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa; and Sir Sidney Moko Mead, PhD, who created his country’s first department of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The range of topics within these respective discussions includes: Sustainable development as a human right, the importance of indigenous knowledge and native intelligence, the potential for Hawaii Island to become a world model for sustainable living, and humanity’s universal responsibility to care for our planet and one another.

De Fries and his wife Ginny have lived in Kona, Hawaii, since 1991.

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“The board felt John would do an excellent job as HTA’s new president and CEO having generational roots in Hawaii and given his vision for the future, which is so needed in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said HTA board chair Rick Fried.

HTA received over 300 applications for the position. Honolulu-based executive search and staffing firm Bishop & Company assisted with the process. A committee of six HTA board members and three community members reviewed the qualifications of the applicants before narrowing the list down to a group of nine finalists for interviews. The full HTA board interviewed the final two candidates today when the meeting went into executive session.

De Fries previously lead the Department of Research and Development for the County of Hawaii, a division responsible for stimulating economic growth in sectors including tourism, agriculture and renewable energy. Prior to that, he served as president and CEO of Hokulia, a luxury residential community on Hawaii Island. De Fries serves on numerous boards, including Kualoa Ranch, Bishop Museum and the Keahole Center for Sustainability.


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