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Hawaii tourism plunges; officials tackle reentry plan

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The Kakaako and Ala Moana skyline from Magic Island as seen on Wednesday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The Kakaako and Ala Moana skyline from Magic Island as seen on Wednesday.

Hawaii saw visitor spending and arrivals in March plummet more than 50% as the new coronavirus pandemic devastated the world’s travel industry.

Performance was so bad that it erased January and February gains and caused double-digit losses for the first quarter.

In March 2019, 939,064 visitors came to Hawaii and spent more than $1.5 billion. Last month, visitor spending fell 52% to $720 million as arrivals dropped 54% to 434,856. The incredible losses caused first-quarter visitor arrivals to fall more than 16% to just over 2.1 million. Spending, during the first three months of the year, fell more than 14% to nearly $3.9 billion.

Still, it was clear at a Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 meeting Thursday that lawmakers are far more focused on keeping tourism collapsed until Hawaii has a reopening plan. And even then, their vision for recovery emphasizes tourism management over expansion of the state’s No. 1 industry.

Since the March start of a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers, only 4,472 visitors, which represent a mix of leisure and essential travelers, have come into the state.

Even that is too many for Senate committee members who expressed dissatisfaction that Wednesday’s visitor arrivals grew to 187 — one of the highest daily visitor counts of the past five weeks.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (D, Mililani Mauka-Waipio Acres-Wheeler-Wahiawa-­Whitmore Village-portion of Poamoho) criticized the state Department of Transportation and Hawaii Tourism Authority for quarantine loopholes and said they must be sealed before visitor counts to Hawaii rise.

“There are still people that are getting through. … They are leaving the hotel, and then they are getting arrested several times. I know that administration likes to say, ‘Hey they got caught, the thing is working’ … but that’s not going to work when you have 5,000 people, 10,000 people, 30,000 people flying in,” Dela Cruz said.

Hawaii’s visitor industry expects little recovery will happen while a quarantine exists, and even afterward growth will be tempered.

Ben Rafter, OLS Hotels & Resorts CEO and HTA board member, said, “Instead of fussing about a rounding error number of arrivals, we should be lauding the work that was done and being thankful that we only have 600 cases. It’s not ideal, but it could have been a lot worse.”

“Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean there’s a clear path to reopening tourism on a significant scale,” Rafter said. “Realistically, if 95% of the population is excluded from being able to visit here, then tourism will fail and our economy will fail with it.”

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said his company estimates about 20 states will reopen today. While some people might begin to plan travel in May, Richard said most won’t actually travel until June, with the vast majority waiting until July or beyond.

“We’re expecting some Hawaii hotels to reopen on June 1, but I’d be shocked if hotel occupancy is over 20%,” he said. “Tourism won’t return at all if the quarantine is still in effect.”

Richards said even if travel returns to Hawaii, it probably will be the end of the year before hotels are 40% full.

Part of the reason is that travelers must work through their own public-safety concerns before they’ll take a trip. Also, the nation’s economic woes will weaken travel demand.

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