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COVID-19 flight assistance program renewed as visitor counts kick up

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The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii will use part of its annual budget to keep a COVID-19 flight assistance program alive at a time when Hawaii’s visitor counts are expected to rise.

The program, which was originally funded by a grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, began April 6. From then to now, VASH has spent about $40,000 helping 141 visitors who didn’t have the resources to follow the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers.

Visitors to Hawaii are required to bear all quarantine expenses, including lodging and food delivery.

HTA elected not to renew the program’s $25,000 grant Friday. The state tourism agency’s transient accommodations tax funding stopped in April, a month that saw arrivals plummet 99.5%.

HTA’s fiscal year 2020 budget was $86 million, but the agency has reduced its fiscal year 2021 budget to $55.2 million. The agency plans to reduce its branding budget from more than $51 million in fiscal year 2020 to about $28 million, a 44.5% drop.

However, VASH President and CEO Jessica Lani Rich said Friday the two agencies worked together to continue the flight assistance program, which will be funded with $25,000 in VASH victim assistance funds normally used to help tourists who are crime victims or experience other misfortune.

“I’d like to thank HTA for their cooperation. We didn’t want to stop the program,” Rich said. “Visitor counts are rising. The program is a success, and it’s contributing to the well-being of the people of Hawaii by stopping the spread of COVID-19.”

Rich said visitors to Hawaii who are flagged for not having lodging are given a choice to prove they have found a place to stay or to leave. Violations of the quarantine mandate could result in a misdemeanor with fines up to $5,000 and one year in prison.

It seems unlikely that most visitors would want to come to Hawaii if they were subject to a quarantine. To be sure, trans-Pacific passenger counts have fallen dramatically from last year’s June average of more than 35,000 a day.

Still, there have been some high-profile cases, including 21 members of the Carbon Nation cult who managed to skirt the quarantine on Hawaii island. The cult’s leader, Eligio Bishop — who refers to himself as “God” and “Natureboy” — was among those arrested and charged after police followed up on social media posts and tips from the public.

Rich said news reports show that Carbon Nation, which has its own YouTube channel, was previously booted out of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama.

“They are a religious cult known for polygamy and nudism,” she said.

Most of the flight assistance program cases haven’t been as bizarre. However, the number of visitors coming to Hawaii despite the quarantines has been rising again with the approach of the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

HTA reported Friday that 937 visitors were among the 2,813 passengers who came to Hawaii on Thursday. Also on the 25 flights were 704 returning residents and 220 people who claimed they planned to relocate to Hawaii. There were 226 airline crew members and 126 transit passengers who did not plan to leave the airport. There also were 528 military members and 72 people who had obtained approval to bypass the quarantine.

The bulk of visitors, or some 841, went to Oahu, but there also were 63 visitors who went to Maui and 33 to Lihue.

Most of the Oahu visitors who indicated the purpose of their trip on a state travel declaration form claimed a local connection. As many as 616 out of 794 respondents, or 78%, said they were visiting friends and family. However, 16%, or 125 out of 794 Oahu visitors, indicated they had come here on vacation.

About 7%, or 57 out of 794, said they were coming to Hawaii on business, and 5%, or 36, said they planned to relocate to Hawaii. The percentages add up to more than 100% because travelers were offered more than one choice.

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