Hawaii has flattened the COVID-19 curve, but reopening tourism still isn’t even on the government’s official agenda.
That’s in sharp contrast to destinations around the world such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, China, Italy, Iceland, Greece, Spain and Mexico — even Las Vegas and Florida — that have announced tourism reopening dates or are seriously moving toward them by setting public benchmarks and adopting standards for phased reopening.
Without a future start date, Hawaii’s visitor industry is floundering. Tourism officials say reopening will take four to six weeks, so they need to know now if government is making plans for a mid-June or July restart. So far, they’ve heard nothing silence from the state.
Lawmakers say they are taking their cues from the state Department of Health and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. Neither agency has clarified tourism’s reopening benchmarks.
Perhaps it’s a clue that state Economist Eugene Tian’s forecast, released Friday, assumes Hawaii tourism won’t start opening until September.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said waiting until September is going to make unemployment rise. By June or July, visitor-industry-related foreclosures and business shutdowns already will have started.
“If you think getting out of COVID-19 was difficult, you ain’t seen anything yet when it comes to getting back on our feet,” Hannemann said. “Without visitors, revenues for nearly every other business that reopens will be weak.”
He and other tourism leaders are pushing a preseason plan.
They want Gov. David Ige and the four local mayors to lift the interisland passenger quarantine to allow kamaaina travel to resume in May or June. Hoteliers that take a risk and reopen for kamaaina travel are seeking assurances that if the process is successful the state would agree to lift the out-of-state passenger quarantine on July 1.
Hawaii’s visitor industry also is exploring forming “travel-safely bubbles” such as the one formed between Australia and New Zealand. Such agreements might exempt passengers from Japan and other areas with low COVID-19 case counts, from the quarantines.
“We have no flights into Hawaii from Japan right now. But if we reached an agreement, we would probably see several flights return as long as we had our safety protocols in place,” said Eric Takahata, director of Hawaii Tourism Japan. “Hawaii was the No. 1 foreign destination in a recent survey from the Japan Association of Travel Agencies.”
In the meantime, HLTA also is pushing members to adopt new safety and cleanliness guidelines. The standards drill down to manini suggestions like not draping guests with lei to major ones such as establishing an evaluation system with placards, much like what the state Department of Health requires for food operators.
“We’ve worked hard to adopt a standard for our industry,” Hannemann said. “You also will probably see individual brands electing to do even more.”
Outrigger Hotels & Resorts’ launch of Outrigger’s Clean Commitment, outrigger.com/clean-commitment, is just one example of how Hawaii’s visitor industry is striving to get ahead of the curve.
Outrigger’s new program, designed by health care leaders and developed with Ecolab, uses new health protocols, physical distancing and increased cleaning to support guest safety and employee well-being.
Outrigger has brought in high-tech solutions such as electrostatic sprayers, which spray mist containing positively charged particles that more evenly cling to surfaces and objects. They’ve also purchased UV wands, which use high frequency to damage nuclear materials in bacteria and viruses.
Mike Shaff, vice president of operations for Outrigger Hospitality Group, said, “We look at consumer sentiment reports weekly, if not daily, and having reassurance (that) cleanliness is at the top of that the list.”
Hawaii’s government officials have funded a $36 million airport public health screening system. Instead of creating centralized thermal scanning stations for arriving passengers, the latest plan includes taking photographs with thermal scans at gates for arriving passengers to reduce the risk of passengers spreading the new coronavirus as they pass through Hawaii’s airports.
Government leaders, as well as tourism, health care and law enforcement officials, are considering everything from tightening quarantine loopholes to removing quarantine restrictions for travelers who have COVID-19-free test results. Increasing community testing and contact-tracing capabilities also are part of the discussion.
HLTA has worked with the visitor industry and the state Department of Health on a plan to reopen tourism while keeping employees and guests safe.
However, Eric Gill, Unite Here Local 5 financial secretary-treasurer, said the union cannot support HLTA’s guidelines without substantial amendments. The union has organized a car caravan in Waikiki on Wednesday to demand that Hawaii’s tourism industry and elected leaders put public safety and Hawaii workers first.
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“They are lacking many necessary elements, particularly worker safety requirements, and are not adequate to serve as a community standard for rebuilding Hawaii’s tourism,” Gill said.
For example, Gill said HLTA’s guidelines call on workers to stay home if they are sick. However, there is no mention of sick leave or quarantine provisions that ensure that workers can afford to stay home, he said.
Gill said another omission in HLTA’s plan is that it ignores the need for testing for both hotel workers and guests. Also, he added that guidelines must include enforcement provisions and whistleblower protections, so that they will be followed and not ignored.
Hannemann said HLTA’s guidelines were shared with Unite Here Local 5, and were vetted by other union and non-union hotels and the state Department of Health.
“These are the minimum standards to reopen,” he said. “If Unite Here Local 5 thinks other standards need to be in place they can address them during bargaining with their hotels. They shouldn’t hold the rest of the hotel industry back.”
Hawaii left behind
In the meantime, Hannemann expressed fears that Hawaii will get left behind as tourism restarts elsewhere.
The European Commission has released tourism reopening guidelines, 808ne.ws/Europeancommission, with the expectation that some of its destinations are planning to have a summer tourism season. Summer is a peak travel season for many European destinations as it is in Hawaii.
The U.S. Travel Association has published a set of guidelines, describing vigorous measures the U.S. travel industry will follow to reduce the risk of COVID-19.
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Los Cabos’ tourism board also is making plans.
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So far, the Hawaii Tourism Authority hasn’t released a tourism reopening plan. The state’s recovery plan from the Hawaii Economic and Community Recovery & Resiliency “navigator,” appointed by Ige, barely mentions travel.
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Meanwhile, transient leisure travel has restarted for some U.S. destinations, said Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights for STR, the travel research company. Some smaller companies also have restarted corporate travel, although larger companies and larger business groups haven’t yet returned, Freitag said.
Freitag said drive-to U.S. destinations near the beach began to see upticks at the end of April, as parts of the U.S. began reopening. For the May 15-16 weekend, Freitag said hotel occupancy in Myrtle Beach, S.C., rose to 72.4% and it was 70.2% in the Florida panhandle and 60.5% in Daytona.
“Clearly people were ready to get out, hop in their car, and spend a night away,” Freitag said. “We don’t see an uptick from Sunday to Thursday, so clearly these are weekend trips. For instance, Myrtle Beach, S.C., averaged just 26% occupancy during the weekdays.”
Freitag said getting travelers back to Hawaii, where April hotel occupancy was just 8.9%, is more challenging since there’s the “double-whammy of needing air access and the long-haul travel fear factor.”
That said, Freitag said once Hawaii’s passenger quarantines are lifted the destination could appeal to high-end U.S. travelers, who were thinking of going to Europe or Asia.
“You don’t need a passport to Hawaii and it’s perceived as safe,” Freitag said.
According to Omnitrak’s latest survey of 2,500 U.S. travelers who had traveled at least once in the past year, limited summer demand for Hawaii could materialize. The survey, which was conducted May 1-9, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Chris Kam, president of Honolulu-based Omnitrak, said among the 22% of travelers who do not have travel plans but are considering taking a trip between May and the end of October, 7% are considering a trip to Hawaii. That ranks Hawaii the ninth highest state for future travel considerations among such travelers after Florida, California, New York, Nevada, Texas, Colorado, South Carolina and Tennessee, Kam said.
However, Kam said 64% of past year travelers feel that “People shouldn’t vacation anytime soon because it puts places they visit and their own communities at risk upon return.”
Kam said he thinks it’s good for Hawaii to wait and see if a second wave of infections materializes at other destinations.
“But at the same time I don’t think we can afford to wait too long,” he said. “We should see how the summer goes and make decisions about whether we want to tap into the fall market.”
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