Most Hawaii businesses remain closed and the stay-home orders have not yet been lifted, but plans are already in the works to begin marketing the state to tourists as “the safest place on earth.”
Alan Oshima, who was appointed by Gov. David Ige in April as the “navigator” of Hawaii’s stabilization and economic recovery effort, said Thursday he hears from tourism and other industry leaders that “we have one chance to reopen and to re-brand Hawaii as the safest place on earth, and we should do it right.”
Lt. Gov. Josh Green used essentially the same phrase during a news conference Wednesday, noting Hawaii has one of the lowest fatality rates in the nation from COVID-19 and has a very small number of cases compared with other states.
Apart from the obvious benefit of protecting residents from the disease, Hawaii’s handling of the crisis will pay dividends later, he said.
“We have the secondary benefit when this ends — and it will end, whether it’s this fall or next spring — of being able to say we were the safest, healthiest state in the country, and maybe destination in the world, and I think that’s really going to speed up our recovery, too,” Green said.
Pitching Hawaii as a healthy place to visit is not a new idea, but it may have a different ring to it during or even after a pandemic. There has been intense pressure to firmly enforce Hawaii’s two-week mandatory quarantine on all incoming visitors, and also a huge community stay-at-home effort to curb the spread of the virus.
Oshima said the state should “move slowly with deliberate speed and make sure it’s right and make sure the public health is paramount.”
Ige said Wednesday it will be a while before the state opens up to tourists but that he has spoken to hotels, airlines and visitor attractions, and “everyone is committed to reinvent the hospitality industry here in the islands. We want to be branded and known for being safe and for providing a terrific experience” for visitors.
The state first needs to put in place a “layered structure” to identify and isolate infected visitors and anyone they may have had contact with, he said. The state also needs a way to educate visitors to be respectful of Hawaii residents’ desire to be healthy, Ige said.
The Hawaii tourism industry has long used the state’s reputation as a safe, clean and healthy place as a marketing tool, and that should continue, said Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.
“It really makes sense because that is what we have been known for prior to COVID, and now more so as we need to regain the trust and confidence of travelers and, most importantly, people here at home. That’s got to be our mantra,” said Hannemann, a former Honolulu mayor. “Everybody’s buying into that, and that is exactly what we need to do.”
On the other hand, “that shouldn’t be construed that we’re going to immediately start marketing, because we’re not ready for that,” Hannemann said.
Ige would have to lift the quarantine first, and the visitor industry needs to put together workable protocols for the safe operation of restaurants, hotels, rental cars and other attractions. Airlines need to reassure travelers, and a system needs to be put in place to ensure passengers are healthy before they board the planes.
“I don’t want tourism to be open if there’s still a way for sick people to board that plane and come here,” Hannemann said. “No. It shouldn’t be.”
Former state Sen. Gary Hooser on Kauai and others have suggested the pandemic and the industry shutdown offer Hawaii an opportunity to rethink tourism. “I recognize, certainly, the importance to the economy, but we need to take this as an opportunity to do it better,” he said.
“The people I talk to, by and large, don’t want it to go back the way it was in terms of tourism,” Hooser said. There has been talk of the “carrying capacity” of the islands for decades, “and I believe we’ve reached that point.”
But Hannemann warns that diversifying the economy or replacing tourism with some other industry won’t happen overnight. He said he has been involved in government since the 1980s, and every economic diversification idea “just hasn’t happened.”
Hawaii should keep trying, “but at the end of the day, tourism will remain our core competence. I mean, how do you replace 250,000 jobs, $2 billion in taxes and $17 billion in revenues that this industry does? That’s going to be the challenge.”