Oahu could see a small boost in tourism since Hawaii is under consideration on an exclusive list of 12 countries and regions that Japanese leaders are considering for the resumption of safe international travel.
Hawaii officials have been working for months on forming a “travel bubble” with Japan that allows for relaxed travel restrictions between the two destinations as a way to help tourism safely start rebounding from the 98.9% plunge that it took in May. The program likely would benefit Oahu disproportionately as Hawaii is expected to limit the relaxed entry program to Oahu, which gets the lion’s share of Japan visitors anyway.
“It’s important that we restore travel between Japan and Hawaii and we see this program as a way to make this possible, while also preventing the further spread of infections from COVID- 19,” Gov. David Ige said in a news release.
The new Japan-Hawaii Safe Travel Program, announced Monday by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, would be tightly regulated to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections. It would require proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction test result prior to travel, in addition to a required examination of travelers upon entry to Japan.
Hawaii, which has low COVID-19 cases like Japan, is the only U.S. state under consideration for Japan’s international travel program. Others on the list include China, South Korea, Taiwan and several European countries.
If the program takes off as planned, early indications from the airlines suggest that Hawaii could get up to 690 Japanese visitors a day, said Eric Takahata, managing director of Hawaii Tourism Japan.
“As long as Hawaii is on track to begin our pre-arrivals testing program on Sept. 1, all the carriers have expressed high interest and have communicated to us that they are willing to fly,” Takahata said. “We’re talking about one flight per carrier, something very manageable to start.”
Takahata said these numbers would be significantly less than the 3,500 to 6,000 daily visitors that came to Hawaii from Japan prior to COVID-19.
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. Ige lifted the interisland quarantine June 16; however, the out-of-state quarantine has been extended to Aug. 31.
Only 14 of the 9,116 visitors who came to Hawaii in May were from Japan.
“The Japanese visitors that have come to Hawaii flew from Tokyo to Los Angeles and then straggled into Hawaii. Once they get here they have to quarantine,” Takahata said.
Should arrangements between Japan and Hawaii advance, Takahata said additional details must be worked out. For instance, Hawaii officials have asked Japan to consider changing a travel health notice for Hawaii from Level 3, which means reconsider travel, to Level 1, which means exercise normal precautions. Hawaii officials also have asked the Japanese government to exempt travelers coming back from Hawaii from Japan’s own 14-day passenger quarantine.
“Without those changes, initial visitation from Japan would be less than the 690 or so a day that we are expecting,” Takahata said.
Testing requirements will be another hurdle as tests in Japan are expensive — some $250 or $300 a pop — and they’ll need to be accessible, he said.
“We think we’ll initially get a more affluent traveler,” Takahata said. “We’ll also be getting a higher percentage of repeat travelers, those that have made five trips or more.”
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.
“The hotels in Waikiki that attract higher-spending visitors are usually about 30% to 35% Japanese, and it’s only 3% to 5% on the neighbor islands,” Vieira said. “Still, any positive news, with everything going on, is a step in the right direction.”
Takahata said visitation from Japan to Hawaii won’t be high-volume. But he said it would help to address the more than $200 million in losses that Japanese travel-related businesses in Hawaii are reporting per month, which doesn’t even include hotels.
“It’s the best news that we’ve had in a long time,” said Sam Shenkus, the Royal Hawaiian Center’s vice president, director of marketing. “For Waikiki it’s going to be fantastic. The Japanese visitor is a critical component to Hawaii tourism on the island of Oahu.”
Shenkus said Japanese visitors are the Royal Hawaiian Center’s No. 1 customer for luxury brands and are known as respectful travelers who value safety.
“One of the really good benefits of opening tourism with the Japanese is that we can establish and fine-tune protocols that will allow us to be more proactive and knowledgeable as we open into new markets,” Shenkus said.
Dave Erdman, founder, president and CEO of PacRim Marketing Group Inc. & PRTech, said he’s thankful to Hawaii’s business community and government leaders for “working diligently and creatively ” to reopen tourism to “Hawaii’s most important international market.”
“The reopening of tourism with Japan is an important step to help bring back our economy. All businesses will benefit — our airlines, transportation companies, retail, dining, our farmers and fishermen,” Erdman said.
Based on company surveys, Erdman expects travelers from Japan to embrace the opening of a travel corridor with Hawaii.
“We do advance reservations for hotels across Hawaii, and we continually see advance reservations from Japan to Hawaii,” he said. “People who have made third- and fourth-quarter reservations are holding onto them. We know that they want to return here if they feel safe.”
Star-Advertiser staff reporter Nina Wu contributed to this story.