It was just a few months ago when some Hawaii tourism and government officials thought Hawaii had a shot at marketing the state to tourists as “the safest place on earth.”
At the time, Hawaii’s geographic isolation and strict lockdowns had earned it one of the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in the nation. That’s still true, but a recent surge of COVID-19 cases, especially on Oahu, has put Hawaii at risk of being perceived less favorably by tourists. On Sunday, 220 new coronavirus cases raised the statewide total since the start of the pandemic to 5,042. Some, 2,944 of those cases, or 58%, have occurred during the first 16 days of August alone.
“Oahu’s recent surge is discussed all the time now. The optics aren’t good when Hawaii residents can’t even visit New York or Newark without going into quarantine,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, a large wholesale travel seller to Hawaii.
Uncertainty over Hawaii’s travel policies also is giving some travelers pause. On Thursday, Gov. David Ige announced he might again delay a pre- arrivals testing plan to reopen tourism on Sept. 1. A pre-arrivals testing program would allow travelers who have taken an approved COVID-19 test within 72 hours of traveling to Hawaii to bypass a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state passengers.
“We’re already getting cancellations,” Richards said. “We need a set date for a pre-arrivals testing program and people need to feel confident it will happen and that they are informed about all the rules.”
Ige said Thursday that he wanted more data before making a decision to delay the pre-arrivals testing program.
The neighbor island mayors indicated that they don’t believe the state will be ready to restart trans- Pacific travel on Sept. 1. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell also expressed doubt at the state’s readiness, but said he’d much rather that visitors who were coming to Oahu had been vetted through a pre-arrivals testing program instead of relying on the quarantine system to keep the county safe.
“If all of them that were coming in right now were pre-tested and negative, I would breathe a lot better than what’s happening right now…which is a whole bunch of people coming in… there’s probably a significant number that are not complying with the quarantine,” Caldwell said.
With Oahu’s COVID-19 case counts soaring, marketing Hawaii as the “safest place on earth” is no longer viable. So now, what?
Last month the state was named to an exclusive list of 12 countries and regions that Japanese leaders were considering partnering with to allow for the resumption of safe international travel. However, momentum may stall given Oahu’s infection increases.
All of the mayors support a Japan travel bubble, although it would undoubtedly bolster Oahu’s tourism the most.
More recently, they’ve also all been considering the concept of resort bubbles, which give quarantining visitors the right to roam at designated areas in participating hotels or resorts. They wouldn’t be allowed off the resorts for the 14 days. If they stray, a geofencing app would alert police.
Caldwell said he prefers a more constrained Japan bubble; however, he sees some promise in a resort bubble if there’s a detailed plan to address concerns.
“It has to be a resort where there’s basically one entry in and one entry out like Ko Olina or Turtle Bay,” he said. “What kind of protocols and protections are going to be in place? Not so much for those staying at the resort but for everyone that works at that resort.”
Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim also voiced his interest in a resort bubble, and his reservations.
“From the government standpoint, it’s a nice easy bubble if the responsibilities are accepted by the host,” he said. “There are so many details and things that you would have to work out. Remember these people are not (vetted as) COVID-free, unless you make pre-testing a part of it.”
Kim said hotels participating in a resort bubble would need to commit to sufficient staffing for enforcement.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said Kauai is beta-testing IT infrastructure for the concept this weekend.
“We’re not going to rush it. We’ll make sure we do it right,” Kawakami said.
Maui Mayor Mike Victorino visited the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea and the Wailea Beach Resort — Marriott, Maui on Thursday to review plans for a resort bubble that included allowing visitors in the bubble to use the beach. He said on Thursday, “It (the resort bubble plan) is not fully vetted, but we are very close.”
On Sunday, Victorino released a statement, saying, “Discussions to establish resort bubbles are in the very early stages. A lot of work still needs to be done, and we still have concerns that need to be addressed. Also, there has never been any consideration to privatize beaches. All beach parks, beaches and public access to beaches are open and will remain open.”
Donna Domingo, president of ILWU Local 142, which represents many neighbor island hotel workers, said the union is still reviewing the concept of “resort bubbles” and is awaiting details on how the hotels plan on protecting hotel workers who will be at high risk of exposure.
“While, the concept is intriguing and could help stimulate some of our economy, we need to review any proposed safety measures and protocols and feel confident those safety measures will protect hotel workers and their families before this idea is implemented,” Domingo said in a statement.
It’s also unclear how resort bubbles will play out with visitors, although Jamaica has piloted a similar concept called resilient corridors, which allows some leisure travelers staying there to bypass a 14-day quarantine.
“We’ll try to sell it, but we don’t have any experience with resort bubbles at all,” Pleasant Holidays’ Richards said. “Some people might come, but any time you restrict someone from enjoying all of the experiences in Hawaii, it’s a negative for tourism.”
Finding the right avenue for a safe tourism opening is important across the isles, where county and state officials must balance economic and public health concerns. What’s right for one county might not be right for all counties.
Some counties might entertain an earlier start to the pre-arrivals testing program for trans-Pacific passengers than others. Still, it’s unclear if logistics could be tweaked to allow staggered implementation.
All the mayors agree that a broader tourism reopening requires that Hawaii residents and visitors avoid large gatherings and stay vigilant about wearing masks, avoiding social gatherings of 10 or more people, practicing social distancing and using good hygiene.
They also say it’s important to beef up the state’s data collection capabilities.
“The key to not only just opening the visitor industry but just being able to move forward and living life with a virus is a change in behavior,” Kawakami said.