It’s like a never-ending free fall.
Hawaii tourism plummeted again in June — the third month in a row that visitor arrivals fell more than 98% from the same month last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported Thursday that 17,068 visitors came to Hawaii in June, a 98.2% decrease from June 2019, when there were 951,628 visitors to Hawaii. In June 2019, visitors to Hawaii spent about $1.64 billion.
The HTA is no longer tracking visitor spending, which is thought to have nearly zeroed out due to declines in travel.
The drop in June visitor arrivals continued the monthly declines, which began in March as COVID-19 fears and government lockdowns collapsed tourism. January and February kicked off what was thought to be another strong year for Hawaii tourism, which last year grew to a record 10.4 million visitors, who spent nearly $18 billion.
All indications were 2020 would be another banner year. Some in the visitor industry expected COVID-19 would be just a short blip even after visitor arrivals dropped in March to 434,856, a 50% reduction from March 2019.
However, thoughts of a quick recovery faded when visitor arrivals bottomed out in April at 4,564, a 99.5% fall from April 2019. In May they declined 98.9% to 9,116.
Year-to-date through June, there’s been a nearly 59% drop in visitor arrivals to nearly 2.2 million visitors. At this time last year, nearly 5.2 million visitors had come to Hawaii and spent nearly $8.9 billion.
State Economist Eugene Tian estimated in late May that tourism arrivals would fall 68% to 3.4 million for the year. Tian also estimated that this year’s visitor spending could drop 69% to $5.5 billion.
To achieve Tian’s forecast, at least 1.2 million more visitors would have to come from July to December — a feat that some view as increasingly unlikely.
Hope surfaced in late June when Gov. David Ige announced an Aug. 1 target for the start of a pre-arrivals testing program for Hawaii. Thought to be a pathway to reopening Hawaii tourism, the program would have allowed out-of-state passengers with approved negative COVID-19 tests taken within three days of their trip to Hawaii to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.
But expectations fell this month as coronavirus cases in Hawaii and on the mainland surged and Ige pushed back the pre-arrivals testing program start date to Sept. 1.
Amy Terada, vice president of marketing for Hawaii wholesaler Pleasant Holidays, said customer demand for travel to Hawaii dropped with the pullback on the pre-arrivals testing program launch. Lack of details and program infrastructure also make selling travel to Hawaii more challenging.
“It’s becoming more and more of a challenge for us to get that test. In most cases you can’t get them unless you have symptoms, and the results are taking longer than 72 hours,” Terada said.
There’s also concern that the Aug. 31 retirement of HTA President and CEO Chris Tatum could leave state tourism recovery efforts in a lurch.
HTA Board Chairman Rick Fried said a list of candidates has been narrowed to nine from 324 applicants. Fried said the nine will be interviewed in early August, and four finalists from the group will be interviewed again a week later.
“We’d like to make a selection by the end of August and take a recommendation to the board in September,” Fried said. “We’ve got some outstanding candidates, but this will be an incredibly tough job for someone to come in and do. We’ll need someone who can think out of the box. This isn’t business as usual.”
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is ready to start recovering domestic tourism to Hawaii once a pre-arrivals testing program date is confirmed, but it’ll need an advance from next year’s budget to cover a $4.6 million plan.
The HVCB plans to put out a message that Hawaii’s resort areas are open, while dialing up responsible traveler messaging, including sharing new health and safety protocols with visitors and residents.
Jay Talwar, HVCB’s chief marketing officer, said the idea is to attract “thoughtful visitors” looking to rejuvenate. The other marketing goal is to demonstrate that they’ll have “more meaningful experiences when they respectfully connect with our vibrant culture and understand the values which shape our behaviors.”
The campaign, which aims to stimulate visitor traffic to Hawaii from September to December, will target “respectful travelers” and “repeat travelers” between the ages of 25 and 54 who reside in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
The companies that make up Hawaii’s visitor industry also are planning to launch their own campaigns, which include messaging about health and safety and new COVID-19-related protocols.
But there’s no guarantee of improvement even with the beefed-up marketing efforts. So far, there’s no indication that July or August tourism numbers will fare better than the prior four months.
HTA reported Thursday that only 570 visitors were part of the 2,380 arriving out of state who flew into Hawaii on 26 flights Wednesday. Normally in June, out-of-state passenger arrivals coming into Hawaii average 35,000 passengers a day, most of them visitors.
It’s also uncertain whether consumers will have gotten over their COVID-19 fears or whether there will be enough tourism infrastructure to support a recovery.
Most of Hawaii’s lodging temporarily closed in March, and not all of it has reopened. Year-to-date through June, there were just over 3.5 million scheduled air seats, a nearly 48% drop from the first six months of 2019.