Maui destination manager Meagan DeGaia on community relationships

In summer 2020, the Hawaii Tourism Authority launched a program to establish community-driven Destination Management Action Plans for every county in the state in an effort to lessen tourism’s impact on the Islands and improve the resident-visitor relationship. In August, Meagan DeGaia was hired in the role of Maui destination manager, a position created to spearhead implementation of the action plan on the Valley Isle. DeGaia recently spoke with Hawaii editor Tovin Lapan about the challenges ahead and her goals for the position.

Q: You come from a background in nonprofits, education and amplifying the work of Native Hawaiians. What lessons from those experiences are you bringing to your new role?

A: I was really able to see firsthand how important it is for us to be engaging with Hawaiian practitioners through culturally immersive and educational experiences. And just for the Hawaiian people to be the voice and be in leadership positions, in a sense, telling their story, educating and engaging others, and the real distinction between entertainment-based tourism and culturally immersive educational experiences. And the difference is just palpable, because a real relationship is able to come from it.

Q: As tourism to Hawaii has returned coming out of the pandemic, there has been a lot of tension between Maui residents and visitors over traffic, overcrowding and other issues. What made you want to take on this role?

A: I took this role because I’m really passionate about building bridges within the community. I firmly believe that the more unified we are as a people, as a global family, really, the stronger we are as a people and a community. So I’m just excited about that. I’m really hopeful in that sense. Right now, we really have such an important and profound opportunity to shape and redefine tourism. So, I’m thankful in that sense for our partnership with Hawaii Tourism Authority for taking this on, and also for all the community that’s been a part of the steering committee so far that guided and informed the plan that we now work from. 

So many visitors and locals alike are going to tell you Hawaii is more than tiki torches and mai tais. And it’s so important that visitors come to understand this important history and the culture here. You can transform the messaging of what Hawaii is from just a paradise escape to a place that allows people to get in touch with the truth and a deep recognition of the Hawaiian culture, which was born from these beautiful Islands. We’re so fortunate that Hawaiian culture is a living culture. There’s still so many Hawaiian cultural practitioners and countless nonprofit organizations working for good here.

Tourism marketing is under intense scrutiny in Hawaii, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority is a target for change.

Q: What’s your advice for visitors to Maui on how to be more conscious of their impact on the local community?

A: I truly understand that people work really hard and they save their money to go on a trip to Hawaii. And I also understand what it’s like to desperately need a vacation and that people need to recharge with their beach days, their pool days, their adventure days. 

My advice is, don’t be a tourist, but be a traveler. And by that I mean if you want to have a truly transformational experience during your stay here, and if you want to feel the spirit of Aloha that you might have heard about or maybe even feel personally called by to come here, then I encourage folks to get involved in the Islands through experiences such as our Malama program or other voluntourism opportunities that they come across. I encourage them to really get their hands dirty, seek out these unique experiences where they’re connecting with the land and ultimately connecting with the people who are taking care of this place. And of course, it’s always important for our visitors and all of us to be aware of the Covid safety protocols here. 

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