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Hawaii explores ‘travel bubble’ with Japan amid tourism collapse

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Waikiki still isn’t crowded, a byproduct of a collapsed tourism industry because of the pandemic. Shops were closed Tuesday along Kalakaua Avenue.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Waikiki still isn’t crowded, a byproduct of a collapsed tourism industry because of the pandemic. Shops were closed Tuesday along Kalakaua Avenue.

A pilot “travel bubble” with Japan that allows for relaxed travel restrictions between the two destinations might be a way for Hawaii tourism to start coming back from the 99.5% plunge that it took in April.

The concept, which is being pushed by the Hawaii Executive Collaborative, got a preliminary blessing Thursday from the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19.

Paul Yonamine, Central Pacific Financial Corp. chairman and CEO, told the committee that an agreement between Japan and Hawaii would likely allow incoming visitors from Japan, who have met certain safety thresholds, to bypass Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for trans- Pacific passengers.

Yonamine said travel bubble planners are ready to start meeting Monday and have set a tentative goal of July 1 for welcoming back Japan, which is Hawaii’s top international market. Last year the state welcomed 1.6 million visitors from Japan, which supplied 15% of all the visitors to Hawaii.

The news was announced the same day that Hawaii tourism got its most dismal monthly performance report ever. Only 4,564 visitors traveled to Hawaii last month, according to preliminary statistics released Thursday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Only 311 visitors arrived in Hawaii on Wednesday.

In April, 856,250 visitors came by air and cruise ship. HTA did not provide a spending estimate for April’s visitors, but it would have been minuscule compared with the $1.3 billion that visitors to Hawaii spent in April 2019.

The decline was due to COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns. Nearly all trans-Pacific flights to Hawaii were canceled after the state instituted a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for incoming out-of-state passengers March 26, which was extended to interisland travel April 1.

Both quarantines are in effect through June 30. Gov. David Ige said he plans to lift the interisland quarantine soon. However, he said Thursday that he plans to extend the trans-Pacific quarantine beyond June 30.

Most of the visitors, some 3,016, who came to Hawaii in April were from the state’s core U.S. West market. Another 1,299 visitors came from the state’s second-largest tourism source market, the U.S. East. Only 13 visitors came from Japan and nine from Canadian market. Some 298 visitors came from the category called all other international markets, which includes all non-U.S. markets outside of Japan and Canada.

During the first four months of this year, Hawaii’s visitor industry welcomed 2.1 million visitors, a 37% drop from the same period in 2019.

Assuming the visitor industry will start opening in September, state Economist Eugene Tian has forecast Hawaii will host 3.4 million visitors in 2020, a decrease of 67.5% from the 2019 level.

If that proves correct, it means that over the next eight months, only another 1.3 million more visitors are expected to come to Hawaii. Tian has said it could take Hawaii tourism six years to recover.

“Given the significance of Japan tourists to Hawaii and Japan’s low COVID-19 infection and death rates, a travel bubble with Japan could serve as an effective start and pilot in the gradual reopening of tourism,” Yonamine said.

Yonamine said Hawaii and Japan are among the best performers in COVID-19 containment. As of Wednesday, he said, there were 455 infections per million in Hawaii and only 12 deaths per million. In comparison, he said Japan, which ended its state of emergency as of Monday, has a rate of 132 cases per million and 7 deaths per million.

Similar concepts already are moving forward worldwide. China and Korea opened a travel bubble this month for business travelers between Seoul and 10 Chinese regions, including Shanghai. On May 15, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania created their own travel corridor between the three Baltic states. Australia and New Zealand also are pursuing agreements.

Yonamine told lawmakers that there is a tremendous urgency to restart Hawaii tourism, which despite talk of diversification remains the most promising avenue to economic recovery.

“An ailing economy and high unemployment often are associated with more crime, homelessness and mental health issues. All that can change our way of life in the islands and make us less attractive for visitors,” he said.

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D, Kaneohe- MCBH-Kailua-Heeia-Ahui-manu) said he expects significant public interest in doing due diligence on the travel bubble concept.

“The reality is that the tourism traffic that we get right now is not high-spend Japanese families who are gonna stay in Waikiki. It’s wannabe Instagram influencers from the West Coast who are staying in illegal vacation rentals and blatantly violating the quarantine,” Keohokalole said. “So in lieu of any alternatives, this seems like a reasonable proposition that I think we all would like to facilitate.”

Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said the plan is a good first step but that it won’t allow many hotels to reopen, and those that do probably won’t be profitable.

“It’s an improvement that will help Waikiki a bit, but it won’t do anything for most of the neighbor islands,” he said. “We need to reopen the whole market.”

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