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Hawaii’s tourism industry wobbles amid mounting cancellations

                                Mariah Carey performs during a concert celebrating Dubai Expo 2020 One Year to Go in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Carey announced today she will be postponing her scheduled March 10 concert at Neal Blaisdell until Nov. 28.
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Mariah Carey performs during a concert celebrating Dubai Expo 2020 One Year to Go in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Carey announced today she will be postponing her scheduled March 10 concert at Neal Blaisdell until Nov. 28.

In one of her greatest hits, Mariah Carey sang I”ll Be There,” but she announced Tuesday that she won’t be in Hawaii for her March concert due to current global travel restrictions designed to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

Carey’s March 10 concert has been rescheduled for Nov. 28. She explained the decision to fans on social media Tuesday: “I was so excited to come back to Hawaii … but evolving international travel restrictions force us to consider everyone’s safety and well being. I can’t wait to see you (in November)! Stay safe!!”

Carey’s fans were mostly understanding. But the change is another major blow for Hawaii’s visitor industry, which has dealt with a flurry of high-profile group cancellations this week. The Honolulu Festival planned for Friday, Saturday and Sunday also was canceled Tuesday. The 13th Festival of the Pacific Arts &Culture, or FESTPAC, which was slated to come to Hawaii for 11 days in June, has been postponed. And, the Hawaii Tourism Authority announced that it wouldn’t bring the Los Angeles Clippers to Hawaii this year.

The Hawaii cancellations are a turning point for Hawaii tourism, which until now had experienced only slight coronavirus-related dampening. February’s daily international passenger counts show about a 21,000-person drop — that’s not much for a market that brought more than 3 million visitors last year and tends to bring about a quarter of a million tourists to the state every month.

However, members of Hawaii’s visitor industry and travel sellers say they are seeing more signs of a slowdown this month as coronavirus cases in the U.S. increase. There are now more than 60 cases in the U.S., and Washington state is grappling with nine COVID-19 deaths. The continuing global spread isn’t helping, either.

“We saw a pulse change beginning last Wednesday,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, which brings a lot of domestic business to Hawaii. “There’s a heightened anxiety level for travelers in general. They don’t want to take long flights or risk being quarantined. We’re taking cancellations for Hawaii, but nowhere near the cancellations related to Europe, and, let’s face it, our Japan and Asian business has almost stopped.”

Richards said despite the coronavirus-related slowdown, Pleasant’s Hawaii business is still up double digits year-over-year.

Valerie King, Sea Life Park general manager, reported similar trends.

“We had a good February; however, we are just starting to see some signs of lower attendance in March,” King said. “We have worked on some plans for the next three months to consolidate some of the programs we offer to visitors and have a contingency plan in place.”

Keith Vieira, principal at KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said there have been fairly minimal cancellations from Japan, but the booking pace over the next 60 to 90 days is down.

“Right now the Japan cancellations aren’t specific to Hawaii. They think Hawaii is safe. It’s part of the general malaise. They’ve already closed schools in Japan, and they’ve got museums and department stores closing. The Mariah Carey cancellation just adds to all of this,” Vieira said during a phone interview from Japan. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

That’s why members of Hawaii’s visitor industry are taking steps to reassure visitors that Hawaii is a safe destination. King said Sea Life’s Park safety committee implemented training for employees last month with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration protocols and the Coronavirus Fact Sheets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, Alaska Airlines implemented new procedures to keep customers and employees safe and began offering flexible travel options for passengers who book new tickets through March 12 for travel through June 30.

Duke Ah Moo, vice president and commercial director for Hilton Hawaii, said the company’s main focus is on the health and well-being of its guests and team members.

“We are closely monitoring updates from the World Health Organization and the Hawaii Department of Health, and responding based on the best advice of medical professionals and public health authorities,” Ah Moo said. “It is too early to understand the likely impact on the global travel industry, but based on previous events, we can expect travelers to be cautious.”

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