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Hawaii tourism leaders urge state recovery plan

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                Keith Vieira, left, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, spoke Monday with Jerry Gibson, Turtle Bay Resort vice president, during an interview about the future of tourism and travel at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser offices.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Keith Vieira, left, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, spoke Monday with Jerry Gibson, Turtle Bay Resort vice president, during an interview about the future of tourism and travel at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser offices.

Hawaii’s visitor industry is adopting new safety protocols to begin tourism’s recovery, but leaders say they can’t reopen until the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for out-of-state passengers is lifted.

Longtime Hawaii hotelier Jerry Gibson and Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said Monday during an exclusive interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that tourism leaders have supported the quarantine for public health. However, they now believe state leaders must begin working with the industry on setting a goal for reopening with standards in place that keep the community and travelers safe.

Vieira and Gibson said they want to see COVID-19 passenger testing and apps allowing for contact tracing available before tourism reopens. But if that’s months out, they urge leaders to consider allowing Hawaii’s visitor industry to reopen sooner under new safety protocols — everything from extra cleaning to social-distancing measures like conducting more online business, blocking out hotel rooms or floors to space out customers, and reconfiguring restaurants and other common areas.

They’re open to state-run inspections to ensure that the visitor industry is delivering on its safety brand promise. And, they suggest expanding tourism management so that Hawaii’s natural resources receive more investment and less strain.

“We’ve got 220,000 people out of work. The trickle-down effect of that is almost half the population,” Gibson said. “We need to manage getting people back to work and getting tourism back.”

If the passenger quarantine continues past the middle of June, Gibson and Vieira warn of longer-term devastation to the state’s economy, which draws 17% of its gross domestic product, the largest piece, from tourism.

Even if the order is lifted, ideally between May 31 and mid-June, Vieira said tourism would start slow with hotels taking up to 60 days to reopen. The industry would be lucky if it hit 40% hotel occupancy by the fourth quarter, with most properties taking at least a year to return to more profitable levels like 65% to 75% occupancy, he said.

“We should be pushing to get specific actions in place that will allow us to reopen, such as a safety protocol,” Vieira said.

Hotels aren’t the only portion of Hawaii’s visitor industry that can’t return to normalcy until the out-of-state passenger quarantine ends. Many airlines serving Hawaii have successfully petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation for permission to have the flexibility to suspend some of their island routes, citing the major downturn in demand that followed the quarantine.

So far, only 5,277 visitors have come to Hawaii since the quarantine began March 26. But the count remains a top focus for lawmakers, such as the Senate Special COVID-19 Committee, which is concerned that too many visitors are coming despite the quarantine and that too many are breaking rules. In anticipation that tourism will reopen with a quarantine, they are pushing to close loopholes and scale it up for larger crowds.

Another 228 visitors came Sunday, the highest visitor count since March 26 when 268 visitors came to Hawaii on the first day of the quarantine order for incoming travelers, which was extended April 1 to interisland travelers.

That brought the 38-day average to 138 visitors per day. At this time last year, most of the 30,000 or so passengers arriving in Hawaii daily were visitors. Some 856,250 visitors came to Hawaii in April 2019.

Instead of tracking the few visitors who are coming during the quarantine, Vieira said it’s time for government and the industry to “focus on the future and how we come back as a state, an industry.”

Hawaii’s airlines are hurting, too. Alaska Airlines was one of five carriers to request suspension under the CARES Act. Since April 9 the carrier has suspended all flying to Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island, Alaska spokesman Daniel Chun said.

“This is a significant decrease from our normal average schedule of 30 daily flights across four islands, and while we are saddened by this pause, we are happy to do our part to help slow the spread of COVID-19 within our community,” Chun said.

Hawaii’s hotel industry voluntarily collapsed tourism. Vieira said the industry is now ready to work with the state and community to plan for tourism’s reopening, which he expects will be slow and measured, with the first month probably achieving a hotel occupancy of only 10% or so.

Gibson said Hawaii’s visitor industry wants to see contact tracing and rapid passenger testing implemented here. He doesn’t think either concept is that far out, but said the state should take the lead on implementation.

“Emirates Airlines is already doing (testing), and Singapore is looking very closely as a country; they are almost there,” Gibson said.

In the meantime, Gibson said, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, and Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association have begun working with the industry to identify best safety practices and share them.

Gibson said the industry is developing its own safety standards, but it would like the state to adopt a set of mandatory regulations. He suggests having the state Department of Health create some sort of evaluation system, at least for the first six months, similar to health inspections where restaurants are issued placards indicating their fitness.

“Who is going to begin at these hotels? … Our senior workers between 55 and 70,” Gibson said. “We need to have a very healthy protocol in place, a very healthy situation to bring our senior workforce back. That’s just as important as bringing the guests back.”

POSSIBLE FLIGHT SUSPENSIONS

The U.S. Department of Transportation has given some carriers serving Hawaii the flexibility to make flight suspensions on some Hawaii routes that they are obligated to serve. Demand will dictate whether carriers choose to suspend these flights.

Hawaiian Airlines:

From April 17 to Sept. 30:

>> Boston

>> Las Vegas

>> New York

>> Phoenix

>> Portland, Ore.

>> Sacramento, Calif.

>> San Diego

>> Seattle

>> Lahaina, as long as it increases minimum Kahului service to six times weekly

From April 17 to June 1:

>> Pago Pago, American Samoa

Alaska Airlines:

From April 17 to Sept. 30

>> Kona

>> Lihue

>> Kahului

United Airlines

From April 25 to Sept. 30

>> Hilo

>> Kona

>> Lihue

>> Kahului

American Airlines

From April 30 to Aug. 17

>> Kahului

>> Kona

>> Lihue

Source : U.S. Department of Transportation

Correction: Some 856,250 visitors came to Hawaii in April 2019. An earlier version of this story said that was the count for 2019.

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