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Hawaii officials and the tourism industry get ready for the return of out-of-state travelers

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa was marketed in a nationwide campaign Thursday announcing that the wait to come to Hawaii for trans-Pacific travelers ends Aug. 1.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa was marketed in a nationwide campaign Thursday announcing that the wait to come to Hawaii for trans-Pacific travelers ends Aug. 1.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Hotels are setting up for a restart of out-of-state tourism by operating with new safety protocols. Waikiki Beach remains mostly empty as hotels have temporarily closed during the pandemic.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Hotels are setting up for a restart of out-of-state tourism by operating with new safety protocols. Waikiki Beach remains mostly empty as hotels have temporarily closed during the pandemic.

Shane Talbot, a repeat visitor from the West Coast, loves Hawaii so much that he’s been searching daily for news that it was reopening to out-of-state tourists.

Talbot and his family booked an Aug. 12-23 trip to Maui a year ago and have been anxiously watching the news to make sure that it was feasible.

He was excited to learn that Gov. David Ige has green-lighted a COVID-19 passenger testing program starting Aug. 1 that would allow passengers with approved negative COVID-19 tests taken within 72 hours of their trip to Hawaii to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of state passengers.

The Talbots didn’t want a repeat of their mid-March trip to Maui when they were caught in the COVID-19 government lockdowns.

“The first five or six days were normal. Every day after that, something was taken away,” Talbot said. “The coup de grace was the day we picked up our food and went to a park and discovered it was closed. Then we went back to our room, and they had slipped a note under the door that we had to stay in our room. We went home three days early. It was terrible, but understandable under the circumstances.”

After Ige’s announcement Wednesday, Talbot said he promptly began searching all the things that his family needed to do to comply with the new visitor regulations.

“What I have been disappointed to learn is that there is no ‘Where I can go to be tested and get those test results back within 72 hours of flying to Hawaii,’” said Talbot, who lives near Reno, Nev., and Lake Tahoe. “I think Lt. Gov. (Josh) Green indicated in a video shot yesterday that test results there in Hawaii were coming back in 24 to 48 hours. Here on the mainland test results are taking three to five business days, and the operative word is ‘business days.’”

Talbot worries that the family could be taking a chance if the state doesn’t expand the testing window or offer the test in Hawaii. While there was talk earlier of allowing passengers to also get tested once they came to Hawaii, Green said the state is currently supporting only a pre-arrival testing program.

Obviously, Hawaii must work out some of the bugs that Talbot has encountered as it enters a five-week countdown to reopening.

Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim has expressed concern that allowing some visitors to bypass the quarantine will make it more difficult to catch quarantine violators. He used some of his county CARE Act funds to develop a database that would help keep track of visitors in real time, and said he wants to launch it by Thursday but needs the state’s cooperation.

Green said the state agrees with Kim and that Ford Fuchigami, administrative services officer of DOT’s Airports Division, has committed to getting the database up by Thursday for Kim with seamless technology that could be shared across counties.

“We’re already seeing the airlines add more flights,” Kim said. “We need to get ready for more visitors.”

Hotels throughout Hawaii also are gearing up for the restart of out-of-state tourism, which entails making sure shuttered properties are operational again and that their new safety protocols are ready for prime time.

Carmelita “Joy” Melegrito, a furloughed housekeeper at the Kahala Hotel, said she’s glad that the hotel agreed to test workers for COVID-19 before she heads back to work the last week of July.

“It makes me feel safer that they are testing,” said Melegrito, who is a member of Unite Here Local 5. “It’s a big help for us not to be scared of going back to work.”

While visitor volumes aren’t expected to be anywhere near where they were at this time last year, there are signs that some demand is returning and Hawaii had best get ready.

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said, “We started to get calls last night as soon as it was announced.”

“Pent-up demand for travel is very, very high in Southern California, and we expect to see a fairly significant increase in bookings over the next 30 days,” he said.

Richards said that on any given day TSA checkpoints normally average 2.5 million passengers. The passenger count fell below 100,000 in April, but on June 22, 608,000 passengers moved through U.S. airports — a sign that people are flying again.

Tests will discourage some visitors from coming to Hawaii. However, Richards said he’s trying to get visitors off the fence by offering a flat-rate $99 cancel-for-any-reason travel protection plan that gives visitors who decide not to travel 100% of their package price back in future travel credits.

Pleasant’s so bullish that it launched a nationwide campaign Thursday announcing that the wait to come to Hawaii ends Aug. 1. Pleasant’s value-added offerings are for bookings at the Grand Wailea; Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa; Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa; and Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Club — all properties that temporarily closed amid COVID-19 fears and government lockdowns.

Sean Dee, Outrigger Hospitality Group executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said, “It’s difficult to predict the associated increase in critical airlift and demand amid all of the COVID-19 uncertainty.”

“But we are hopeful that we can now forecast slightly higher demand from the U.S. mainland markets in August and beyond, which would result in some properties reopening,” Dee said.

Lynette Eastman, general manager of the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, said her small boutique property, which has a strong military and kamaaina following, was one of only about 100 Hawaii hotels able to remain open throughout the pandemic. Still, with 70% of her staff furloughed, she’s looking forward to receiving more out-of-state travelers, which she says will take some time.

“It won’t come back like huge amusement park demand; it’s going to take some time. It will get us up, but not to where we were,” Eastman said. “I can see why some of the much bigger hotels are electing to wait to September to reopen.”

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