During our conversation, Mr. De Fries, 71, described how the lessons he learned as a child in Waikiki influenced his work, how he felt when Hawaii was empty of tourists, and why he had become addicted to the television show “The White Lotus”, which takes place in Hawaii.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in Waikiki in the 1950s. How does this experience influence your work?
I was born and raised two blocks from Waikiki Beach, half a block from the Honolulu Zoo, so literally about 2,000 yards from the base of Diamond Head. The waters there had been my family’s fishing grounds for a century before I was born, and when I was young we fished them every week. What I learned as a kid was that Waikiki was first a source of food, then a source of medicine – seaweed, sea urchins and stuff – and then it was a place leisure and well-being. There was a hierarchical order there: food, medicine, recreation. But in developing Waikiki, we reversed that order and put recreation first.
As we think about creating a regenerative model for tourism, we need to go back to the lessons we were learning back then. Native Hawaiians have always understood that their ability to sustain life in the middle of the Pacific was tied to living within the limits of the natural environment. So when I look to the future and the opportunities we have for tourism, I don’t see how we’ll do it on a large scale unless we start developing a 21st century version of that kind of thinking. Not everyone in the industry is ready for this, but I don’t think we have a choice.
Has the pandemic changed local attitudes toward Hawaiian tourists?
We ended 2019 with a record number of visitor arrivals: 10.4 million. And six months later, in July 2020, visitor arrivals were hovering around zero. I remember I was standing on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki one night at 9 p.m., and there wasn’t a single vehicle moving in either direction. It felt like a film set, frankly – it was weird. An economic collapse of this magnitude is like a large building collapsing in on itself, and people are trapped underneath. People get hurt.