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Travel to Hawaii will be filled with new safety measures in a COVID-19 world

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Alaska Airlines customer service agent Kathy Higashi wore her mask as she checked in passenger Christen Donaldson and her children, Cairo, 1, and Egypt, 3, at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Friday.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Alaska Airlines customer service agent Kathy Higashi wore her mask as she checked in passenger Christen Donaldson and her children, Cairo, 1, and Egypt, 3, at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Friday.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Alaska Airlines lead customer service agent Saga Mafi, right foreground, wore a mask as she checked in passengers Jane Oh and Bryan Kim at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Friday. In the background is customer service agent Kathy Higashi.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Alaska Airlines lead customer service agent Saga Mafi, right foreground, wore a mask as she checked in passengers Jane Oh and Bryan Kim at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Friday. In the background is customer service agent Kathy Higashi.

Safe travels will take on a whole new meaning as tourism begins to recover in a COVID-19 world.

U.S. states are opening up again, as are other countries, but that won’t automatically return droves of tourists to Hawaii.

After the 9/11 terrorists attacks, travelers would not travel until security changes made them feel safe from attack. Now, they need to feel safe from disease.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Chris Tatum said any industry recovery must include creating “world-class safety protocols that are supported by research and endorsed by the health experts.”

“From the time travelers board their plane to the islands, to when they board their returning flight, both the residents and visitors will need to have confidence the airlines, airports, hotels, transportation, restaurants, activities and attractions are consistently providing protection from COVID-19,” Tatum said. “These protocols need to be part of our brand promise.”

The new normal is under development. But Hawaii’s airlines, hotels, activities and attractions already have begun making changes.

Sanitizer stations abound.

Extra cleaning is taking place and masks are required nearly everywhere.

More social-distancing opportunities are in the works. Hotels are considering restricting access to certain floors and elevators to reduce traffic.

Restaurants are pulling out tables and eliminating buffets. Airplanes have stepped up cleaning and adopted mask-wearing requirements and are spacing out passengers as much as load factors allow.

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The state Department of Transportation is gearing up to bring airport thermal screening to Hawaii, which would become the first U.S. state to adopt the technology that’s being used at some Asian airports. They’re also working with state government and tourism leaders to perfect arrivals screening, including tightening loopholes in Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers.

The transition will lead to winners and losers.

Rewards won’t come without reinvention of business practices and infrastructure. Success will mean rescaling businesses to go after a vastly smaller tourism market than it was in January and February.

Back then, 30,000 passengers a day were coming to Hawaii and filling more than 85% of the state’s hotel rooms. Fewer than 5,000 visitors have come to Hawaii since March 26, when the out-of-state passenger quarantine began.

“It’s going to be the year of the architect,” said Peter Tarlow, president of Tourism and More, an internationally known tourism safety and security expert, who helped Aruba’s visitor industry recover after the 2005 disappearance of American teen Natalee Holloway. “We have to redesign spaces from airport terminals to airplanes to hotels and restaurants to keep people safer. We’ll need new cleaning and safety protocols. It’s not just about opening up to tourists. You have to get them to come.”

Getting them here

Since Hawaii tourism depends almost exclusively on airlines and cruise ships to bring visitors here, any return to normalcy must start with easing worries about using public transportation.

United, Delta, American, Hawaiian, Alaska and Southwest airlines are among the nation’s carriers that have adopted mask requirements. Most U.S. airlines have implemented protocols using disinfectants approved by the Centers for Disease Control that sanitize everything from cockpits and cabins to tray tables, arm rests, seat belts, buttons, vents, handles and lavatories.

Staring Friday, Hawaiian Airlines will require travelers to wear face coverings and create more personal space at check-in, boarding and during the flight.

“Taking care of our guests and employees has always been our primary focus, and these new health measures will help us maintain a safe travel experience, from our lobbies to our cabins, as Hawaii continues to make progress in containing COVID-19,” Peter Ingram, president and CEO at Hawaiian Airlines, said in a statement.

Alaska Airlines is placing social distancing decals 6 feet apart, to remind people to “Mind Their Wingspan,” at airports where it flies, including Hawaii, where installation is expected soon. Through May 31, the carrier is blocking off all middle seats on large aircraft and aisle seats on smaller aircraft at the time of purchase.

New vision for tourism

The 700-person luau, a bedrock of Hawaii tourism, probably will disappear for a while. Activities and attractions are creating new single-family experiences geared to customers who wantto limit exposure to strangers.

As long as an out-of-state passenger quarantine exists, most Hawaii tourism will come from residents on staycations or island hops. Of course, Hawaii residents might not travel through the islands in any kind of numbers unless the state ends the interisland flight quarantine that began April 1.

Based on the experiences of hotels in China that have already reopened, hotels might want to consider beefing up room-service, take-out and grocery delivery options, said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays.

“We’ve heard room service is sky-rocketing, as are orders from meal delivery services like Door Dash. People don’t want to come out of their rooms to eat,” Richards said.

The trend of intrepid tourists wanting a more interactive local experience is likely on pause as today’s travelers look for ways to maintain greater social distancing.

That doesn’t mean vacation rentals won’t come back when Hawaii reopens them as essential businesses. Interest might rise for single-home vacation rentals that allow travelers an opportunity for more social distancing, said Erik Kloninger of Kloninger & Sims Consulting LLC.

Hospitality redefined

Prior to COVID-19, the vast majority of visitors coming to Hawaii stayed in hotels.

More than 129 hotels out of 148 or so statewide closed as COVID-19 worries and lockdowns reduced travel demand. Now, hotel owners and operators who have the means are making plans to reopen.

By September, every Hyatt hotel will have at least one hygiene manager at every property. The company also has committed to work with trusted medical and industry advisers.

“The world as we knew it has been fundamentally changed by COVID-19, and when we are all ready to travel again, we want to make sure that every Hyatt colleague and guest feels confident that each aspect of our commitment is designed with their safety in mind,” Mark Hoplamazian, Hyatt president and CEO, said in a statement. “We must critically examine the hotel experience from every vantage point — from our rooms and our lobbies to our spas and dining — bringing in the latest research, technology and innovation.”

Ben Rafter, president and CEO of OLS Hotels & Resorts, said the first step is getting Hawaii’s hotels that were closed ready to reopen, while making changes that address new coronavirus-related cleanliness requirements and how to interact differently with guests.

“There’s a misconception that because a hotel might be shut down or running with very low staff and occupancy that it isn’t losing that much money. This is untrue,” Rafter said. “Hawaii is not like the desert, where one can seal up a hotel and then have a reasonably straightforward path to reopening a few months later.”

Over the long term, Rafter said, it becomes more important to reshape tourism to represent a Hawaii of the future — “one that is green, sustainable, locally intertwined, culturally significant and befitting of our position as the most isolated land mass in the world.”

“Amid all of this horrible pain and confusion that we are going through is an opportunity to remake what we are,” he said. “We won’t have another opportunity to do this in our lifetimes. If we can succeed, how awesome would that be?”

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