Hawaii tourism, which essentially collapsed amid COVID-19 fears and lockdowns, won’t get out of the starting block for at least another 51 days.
Gov. David Ige’s decision Wednesday to extend the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers to July 31 ensures most of Hawaii’s visitor industry will remain closed through the peak summer month and will probably miss the lucrative summer season entirely.
Ige said last week that he would make an announcement this week about a future date to reopen tourism on a broader scale. The quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers, which took effect March 26, nearly zeroed out visitor arrivals.
Some 4,564 visitors traveled to Hawaii last month, according to HTA preliminary statistics. That’s a 99.5% drop compared with a year ago when 856,250 visitors came by air and cruise ship. On Tuesday, 497 visitors were among the 1,626 passengers that flew into Hawaii on 16 flights.
Visitor counts have been increasing as other places around the world reopen and some state and county lockdowns are lifted for Hawaii’s iconic beaches and other attractions. Daily visitor counts have topped 400 every day since June 1, when Gov. David Ige announced a plan to end the interisland travel quarantine on June 16.
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 trans-Pacific passenger quarantine.
Vieira said that probably means that Hawaii tourism won’t reopen until fall— a delay that could cause some of Hawaii’s visitor industry businesses to close permanently. More employees will be out of work at a time when stimulus and the extra $600 federal-plus up funds are expiring, he said.
A September opening means that Hawaii may find it hard to rebook summer cancellations, said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, which sells wholesale travel to Hawaii.
“We had 15,000 bookings to Hawaii for July. That’s down from 25,000 last year, but it was a good start,” Richards said. “Now, they’ll all be cancelling,” Richards said. “The kids go back to school so families may not want to come later in the year. If that happens, we are going to just lose the business.”
Richards said he’s getting calls from concerned travel partners from Seattle to San Diego who say that there’s pent up demand for Hawaii, but they can’t sell it without a definitive reopening date.
“The uncertainty is impacting Hawaii travel into 2021. We’re showing that every destination, including Europe, the Caribbean and Mexico, is up double digits for next year except Hawaii and Australia,” he said. “All states across the U.S. have reopened tourism to varying degrees except for Hawaii, which is going to miss the curve.”
Finding a balance is complicated. Hawaii’s geographical isolation and passenger quarantines have made it one of the places least affected by COVID-19 cases and deaths. However, some fear that reopening tourism will lead to a second wave of infections.
Ige said Wednesday that safely reopening trans-Pacific travel to Hawaii would likely require a combination of testing, screening and contact tracing. The administration is working with the state Department of Health, the state Department of Transportation and the University of Hawaii to put a system in place to reopen out-of-state travel to Hawaii.
“The challenge here in the islands is the new novel coronavirus is spreading around the world and we are at different stages within the United States and most importantly all around the world,” Ige said.
Ige said the state is considering forming “travel corridors” that would ease restrictions for other places where COVID-19 counts are low like Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The state is monitoring infections in key domestic visitor source markets from the U.S. West, such as California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona, he said.
“All of these Western states are now seeing spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases,” Ige said. “We will be working through and finding solutions that allows us to bring travelers from out-of-state back to the state of Hawaii in a safe and secure manner.”
Vieira said Lt. Gov. Josh Green is working on a plan, with input from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Adjutant General Kenneth Hara, that “can hopefully move things forward.”
Tahiti and Alaska have made testing part of their tourism reopening strategies. But some have questioned the effectiveness of testing passengers 72 hours in advance of their trips to Hawaii — a window that provides opportunity for infection to set in after the test.
Reopening interisland travel is less complicated as Hawaii is among the states with the lowest infection rates in the country and the islands have similar rates of COVID-19.
State Attorney General Clare Connors said a new health screening program will roll out by Tuesday, which marks the end of the state’s interisland quarantine.
“This is our very first step in doing something other than a travel quarantine,” Connors said.
Starting Tuesday, Connors said interisland passengers will fill out a new mandatory travel and heath form, which can be completed online. They’ll have their temperatures checked and those with temperatures above 100.4 degrees won’t fly. They’ll also be asked health questions and based on their answers might be offered a COVID-19 test.
In related news, the City Council Economic Assistance and Revitalization Committee on Wednesday advanced Resolution 20-141, which urges state officials to pay for a plan to test for COVID-19 any incoming travelers to the state using “the most accurate feasible diagnostic viral tests.”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell testified in support of the measure introduced by Councilman Ron Menor. Using more accurate testing would make it safer for the state to reopen the tourism industry. The state should consider charging a fee for the testing which, after the pandemic is over, could evolve into an impact fee to mitigate the ill effects of tourism, he said.
Council members also agreed with Caldwell that there needs to be planning for more aggressive contact tracing.