Some members of Hawaii’s visitor industry have started scaling up operations as the state gets its first chance to boost tourism since COVID-19 fears and lockdowns collapsed travel demand.
The lifting of the interisland quarantine on June 16 will make a difference for hotels that have remained open during the pandemic. It’s also expected to create additional demand for some airlines and other transportation companies, food and beverage providers, the activities and attractions industry and all of their suppliers.
The number of visitors coming into Hawaii has been ramping up since Monday, when Gov. David Ige announced an end date for the interisland quarantine. But it’s hardly enough to sustain the tourism industry or those who rely on it.
On Thursday, 546 visitors came to Hawaii, the most since the quarantine began 10 weeks ago.
Kelly Hoen, area general manager for Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort and Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, said the reopening of interisland travel will allow Outrigger Waikiki to build on “staycation” traffic from Oahu locals, which started about three weeks ago.
“They’ve really been enjoying the opportunity to be outside of their home in a place that they feel safe,” Hoen said. “Interisland bookings have now doubled our occupancy. It’s still at a very low level, but we’ve been bringing workers back as we see reservations build and some of the restrictions being lifted.”
Still, few of the 130 or so Hawaii hotels that closed amid the COVID-19 drop in travel demand and tourism lockdowns are likely to reopen just for interisland travelers, said Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting. Most will wait to reopen when the state lifts the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers that began March 26 and is expected to run beyond its current June 30 expiration, Vieira said.
Bob Hampton, chairman of the board of Waikiki Beach Activities, said many other tourism-dependent businesses could delay reopening too.
“We can have our staff on deck for a July 15 reopening of the entire tourism industry, but not for the lifting of the interisland quarantine. There simply won’t be enough business,” said Hampton, whose company provides beach services to visitors and locals who frequent Waikiki. “Of course, if the government loses some of its paranoia, ultimately that will help too.”
Craig Anderson, vice president of operations for Mauna Kea Resort, said some of its restaurants may reopen if there’s enough demand when the interisland quarantine lifts, but the resort will wait longer to house guests.
“Our math shows that we need to be in the 25% to 30% occupancy range to lose less money than we are losing being closed,” he said.
Anderson said he’s already got 40% occupancy on the books for July, which will dissipate if the state doesn’t lift the trans-Pacific quarantine and the airlines don’t restore enough service to make it convenient for guests to get to the neighbor islands again.
“Just tell us if the restarting date is going to be July 15, Aug. 1 or Sept. 1,” Anderson said. “We need the ability to plan and partner with the airlines. We’ve also got thousands of employees sitting on the sidelines not knowing what happens next.”
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said effective June 16, the carrier will increase interisland seats by 18%, or 700 more seats per day.
“We will provide up to six daily round trips between Honolulu and Lihue, Kona and Hilo, and up to nine daily round trips between Honolulu and Kahului,” Da Silva said in an email. “We also continue to offer two daily round trips between Honolulu and Molokai and Lanai. We will continue to closely watch demand and adjust as needed.”
At the moment, Hawaiian’s cash burn is approximately $3 million a day, he said. Setting a date to lift the trans-Pacific quarantine would help the carrier plan its network and schedule crew and aircraft to be ready to resume routes, while giving guests more time to plan future travel, Da Silva said.
“We haven’t placed our trans-Pacific fleet in long-term storage and would be able to resume service within a few days,” he said. “We believe there will be demand for leisure travel as people will be ready to take a vacation after months of being at home. Our residents would also be more likely to travel outside the state without a quarantine on the return home. How much demand we experience will depend on people’s financial ability to travel.”
Ige said Monday that he would make an announcement next week about a future date to reopen tourism on a broader scale. While some in the industry have speculated Ige could lift the trans-Pacific quarantine as early as July 15, others have said that date could be pushed back due to caution over how the racism-inspired rioting across the U.S. could impact the spread of COVID-19.
Finding a balance is complicated. Hawaii’s geographical isolation and passenger quarantines have made it one of the least impacted by COVID-19 cases and deaths. However, some fear reopening tourism will lead to a second wave of infections.
Opinions vary on whether new safety protocols and proper hygiene practices are enough to reopen Hawaii tourism safely or if some combination of testing, contact tracing, thermal screening and tourism lockdowns must be included.
Coronavirus cases have increased some as Hawaii has reopened parts of the local economy. On Friday, the state Department of Health reported nine COVID-19 cases, including six new ones on Oahu. Two of those cases were linked to Kalakaua Gardens, an independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care facility in Waikiki, where two employees tested positive for COVID-19.
The new tally brings the statewide total to 664 cases and 17 deaths since Feb. 28. The last time Hawaii saw as many as six new cases was April 22. That’s prompted Hawaii health officials to warn residents to continue social distancing and frequent hand washing, wear masks and stay home when sick.