Tourism industry, civil rights groups weigh in on Johnson's resignation - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Tourism industry, civil rights groups weigh in on Johnson's resignation

Keith Vieira Keith Vieira
Lloyd Unebasami Lloyd Unebasami
Rex Johnson Rex Johnson

By Leland Kim - bio | email

WAIKIKI (KHNL) -  One day after the former head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) stepped down, the organization names an interim president and chief executive officer, and industry leaders weigh in.  It's the closing of a controversial chapter after Rex Johnson admitted to -- and apologized for -- sending sexist, racist, and pornographic e-mails from his work computer several months ago.

Many applaud Johnson's decision, and say it's time to move forward.  They say the controversy was an unnecessary distraction during a time when HTA needs to focus on other things.

The hot Hawaiian sun and surfing in Waikiki are two things Hawaii is famous for.  But recently, the heat has been on former Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO Rex Johnson, who admitted to forwarding inappropriate e-mails from his work computer.  He resigned late Wednesday night.  Thursday morning, Lloyd Unebasami was named interim CEO. 

"I think right now we have to work on the economy, and our total marketing program for Hawaii," said Unebasami, who was organization's chief administrative officer before his appointment.

Tourism numbers are down statewide, anywhere from 18 to 31 percent from a year ago, depending on the island.  Leaders in the hotel industry say Johnson did the right thing by stepping down.

"I think he's a good guy," said Keith Vieira, a senior vice president with Starwood Hotels and Resorts. "I don't think he's a racist or a sexist, but when you do some of those actions in the environment we love in, and the people you offend and when you work for the industry that relies on goodwill and people feeling good about coming here, you have to not only take responsibility but pay the consequences."

Vieira has worked 28 years for Starwood, which operates five hotels in Waikiki.  He says Johnson has been a topic of conversation.

"I don't know how much of it spread internationally," said Vieira. "But certainly within the industry, customers on the mainland, customers in Japan, people who market Hawaii, they had a lot of concerns."

He hopes the tourism industry puts the controversy to bed, and move forward.

"The most important thing is to pull together the industry, along with the community and the legislature, so we're moving in one direction," said Vieira.

That's the challenge facing Unebasami.

"I think at HTA we have a very good working team," he said.  "With that team, we will work towards making tourism better for Hawaii."

Unebasami's appointment is effective immediately.  Johnson thanked his supporters, and said he plans to support Hawaii's tourism industry in whatever way he can.

Meanwhile, those who called for his removal say Johnson made the right decision.  The controversy lasted a couple of months, and the Hawaii National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hopes the Hawaii Tourism Authority learns from this incident.

"It is my belief and hope that the HTA is going to be able to go back and do an assessment and determine that there were some lessons learned, that all of them will be able to grow from," said Alphonso Braggs, president of the Hawaii chapter of NAACP.   "And they will be responding differently in the future if given the challenge again."

Braggs also hopes people in the workplace realize racist and sexist behavior should not be tolerated.

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