One on One: Hawaii Tourism CEO Talks Zika, Airbnb

waikiki, hawaii
Photo by hipho/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

As part of Travel Agent's ongoing coverage of the Hawaii Tourism Conference, which is run by the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), we sat down with George Szigeti, president and CEO of the HTA, and chatted about everything from the Aloha State's success in preventing the spread of the Zika virus to the rise of Airbnb.

Here are the highlights from that conversation.

Zika Hasn't Hurt Hawaii Tourism

Szigeti says the Zika mosquito virus that has been negatively impacting tourism in some destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America has not had any effect on Hawaii's tourism numbers. 

And Szigeti gives all the credit to the successful "Fight the Bite" campaign, a Hawaii State Department of Health initiative that educates both residents and visitors on how to take measures to prevent Zika transmission. 

"We have been very proactive on the issue," says Szigeti. "We basically just tell visitors, 'You're already used to using sunscreen, now get used to using mosquito repellent, that's all.' And we've given residents tips on reducing leaks in their backyards or if you have something like an old tire sitting in the back just collecting water, get rid of it. Just simple measures like that help."

George D. Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority

Let Airbnb Be

Szigeti says, like most destinations that are becoming dominated by the Airbnb craze, Hawaii hotels and tourism representatives have embraced the phenomenon, but would just like to see the company enforce more regulations and "pay their fair share of taxes." 

"I think the hotels just want to see an even playing field and would like to see Airbnb pay their fair share of taxes," says Szigeti, "but other than that, we think it can actually be a great asset. When we have conferences like this one and we are scrambling to try and find rooms for everyone, Airbnb can really help."

Szigeti did note, however, that he would like to see Airbnb monitor its process more. For example, Szigeti told us he recently spoke to a German family who just arrived to find that their Airbnb accommodation looked nothing like it did on the Internet.

"The experience people have still means a lot to us because we want them coming back year after year after year," he says, "so I would like to see Airbnb doing a better job of making sure stuff like that doesn't happen."

Lanai Mania is Approaching 

The luxury hotel developments by billionaire Larry Ellison are already drawing major interest in Lanai from affluent travelers. The island, which is owned by Ellison, closed all of its resorts last year, except the 11-room Hotel Lanai. Now, the island is home to two Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts properties. 

Four Seasons Manele Bay re-opened recently and was renamed the Four Seasons Resort Lanai and is already drawing major attention. Following a multimillion-dollar transformation, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai offers guests an escape on their own 90,000-acre secluded Hawaiian island located nine miles from Maui.

"He really knocked that one out of the park," says Szigeti of Ellison and the Four Seasons Resort Lanai.

Four Seasons, The Lodge at Koele, which was housing the construction workers for the island’s renovation projects, is expected to open soon.

"It really is something we needed too because I get a lot of people I speak to in places like China that have told me, 'We really want to come to Hawaii, but you don't have any five-star hotels.' So, we expect Lanai to be that exclusive five-star destination that those types of travelers are looking for in Hawaii."

Millennials Rising

Szigeti told Travel Agent that both the HTA and the Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau (HVCB) are aggressively targeting the Millennial market with several new products and initiatives.

"I was telling everyone earlier today at the breakfast that Baby Boomers are the ones who got us here, who put Hawaii on the map and now it's their children who are continuing that success for us," he says. "A lot of what we want to do to further draw this market revolves mostly around promoting authentic experiences and technology."

One such product is the newly launched Hawaii virtual reality experience, "Hawaii VR." In a first for promoting travel to the Hawaiian Islands, the HTA unveiled the new feature during the conference, which runs through September 30. It includes 360-degree live-action footage.

"The reason we are popular with Millennials is that Millennials are very conscious of what destinations protect its natural resources," says Szigeti, "and for Hawaii, culture and protecting our natural resources are our two pillars of strength."

HVCB to Aggressively Target East Coast Travelers

Szigeti told us that the HVCB is aggressively pursuing East Coast marketing efforts with a focus on New York City. Although Szigeti didn't have an exact date for the launch of that campaign, he did tell Travel Agent he expects it to start before the end of the year. 

"We have been seeing an increase from visitors from East Coast mainly because of everything that is going on in the world today," says Szigeti. "Hawaii is one of those places that people perceive as being safe, clean and fun."

Internationally, Szigeti says the Europe market has been on the rise for Hawaii, prompting the the Aloha State to look into adding new, direct flights from the continent. Australia and New Zealand are also doing quite well as of late, says Szigeti. 

Visit and Keep visiting for all your latest Hawaii travel news and be sure to follow Travel Agent's Joe Pike on Twitter @TravelPike.