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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 12, 2003

Tourism liaison ready for task

Advertiser Staff

State tourism liaison Marsha Wienert, whose appointment was announced by Gov. Linda Lingle last week, says she hopes that the governor's support will give the state tourism liaison the authority to make changes.

Advertiser library photo • June 4, 2003

Tasked with bringing leadership to an industry struggling through political conflicts and an uncertain economy, Marsha Wienert has no easy job before her as the state's first tourism liaison.

Hawai'i Tourism Authority officials, legislators, hoteliers, retailers and others have disagreed over issues ranging from who should pay for state parks maintenance to the use of millions in taxpayer dollars for marketing Hawai'i to the world.

Wienert, praised for her work since 1994 as executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, will need to wade into the fray and encourage cooperation from sometimes dueling public and private tourism interests. She starts work as tourism liaison on July 1 and will serve as a high-profile participant in Gov. Linda Lingle's Cabinet.

Even before Wienert walks into her state office, her "in" tray is full: Her responsibilities include attracting more flights to Hawai'i, defining performance standards for the tourism authority, developing the administration's tourism legislative package and advising the governor on Hawai'i Convention Center marketing.

The tasks could be daunting, but the timing of her appointment works in her favor. Although much of the tourism industry is still attempting to recover from severe losses brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and SARS fears, Hawai'i has been rebounding steadily in recent months, thanks largely to Mainland visitors.

This week's resumption of more Japan Airlines flights to Hawai'i will also shore up the pronounced weakness in the Islands' international market caused largely by skittish Japanese travelers staying close to home.

But as Wienert prepares to step into her job, she is challenged by obvious issues, including her lack of a budget and staff. Her salary of $85,000 a year is all that has been set aside for the tourism liaison, and that will come from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Those issues aside, Wienert's influence could become significant with Lingle's support. Wienert said she and Lingle agree philosophically on tourism development.

"This is the first time that I can remember in my 31 years that we have a governor that understands that tourism is our business and understands that it brings in the revenue," Wienert said. "Her feeling is that if she does things that are in the best interests of our residents, it will be in the best interests of our visitors. If you think about that, it's right."

Wienert said she hopes the governor's support will give her the authority to make changes.

"I may not have a staff but I am sure when the governor speaks and we will be of one mind ... that carries authority with it," Wienert said. "It doesn't take someone with a big whip to get things done. It takes someone who has the right ideas and the buy-in from the community to get the job done."

Wienert's first task will be to oversee Lingle's tourism summit committees as they address industry problems outlined at a meeting last month. She wants the committees to complete their recommendations by early December so their ideas can be rolled into Lingle's legislative package. One of the bills Lingle and Wienert plan to push would restore a bigger budget for the Hawai'i Tourism Authority.

Over the long term, Wienert plans to work closely with the state Department of Transportation to increase international flights. She also wants to help improve what Hawai'i offers to tourists, partly through development of specialties such as ecotourism, cultural tourism, and health and wellness tourism. She further says the state's business travel market needs to be better defined and Waikiki needs improvements.

One of the biggest challenges for Wienert, who has lived on Maui for 31 years, may be the switch from dealing primarily with Maui issues to tackling problems covering all of the Islands. "There's no question that there will be a learning curve as I transition to a statewide perspective," she said.

But she said she has dealt with many people statewide and has a wide range of people she can call upon. Working for Maui County, which includes Moloka'i and Lana'i, has helped her coordinate projects among multiple islands.

Despite what could be a tough initiation, many called Wienert a good choice for the position.

"Having an outer-island person as the main tourism person is a big boost," said Donn Takahashi, Maui Visitors Bureau board chairman and Prince Resorts Hawaii vice president/regional director.

Takahashi, noting that "there's been a shift of many travelers to the outer islands," said Wienert possesses the in-depth knowledge of what makes the Neighbor Islands successful.

He said Wienert "hasn't lived on O'ahu so she doesn't understand all of the challenges ... , but I think she has a good idea about them."

Wienert will also need to develop a close working relationship with the tourism authority, which came under considerable fire at Lingle's second tourism summit.

Critics said the authority lacks focus and devotes too much time to procedural issues. Wienert said she will work with the authority and is "keeping an open mind on everything."

As the voting member on the authority's board representing the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Wienert plans to participate in the selection of one or more agencies seeking different parts of Hawai'i marketing contracts. Thirteen bidders have submitted proposals. They include the Hawai'i Visitors & Convention Bureau, the parent organization of Wienert's Maui Visitors Bureau and longtime marketer for the state.

Wienert acknowledges that her ties to HVCB create"a little bit of a conflict there" but she said she feels she can make the best decision for the state.

Plans call for a decision on a new marketing contractor or contractors at the authority's July board meeting.

"It may be that we just have really strong candidates coming out of the presentations and it'll be a no-brainer," or it may take longer and require more discussions, Wienert said.

Correction: State tourism liaison Marsha Wienert plans to work closely with the state Department of Transportation to increase international flights to Hawai'i. A different state department was named in a earlier version of this story.