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Hawaii Gov. David Ige gives counties right to pursue resort travel bubbles

  • Courtesy Gov. David Ige

    Gov. David Ige, Kauai County Mayor Derek Kawakami and Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino held a joint press conference Thursday to discuss the extension of the travel quarantine and allowing counties to establish resort travel bubbles.

  • STAR-ADVERTISER FILE

    STAR-ADVERTISER FILE

Sun, sand, surf and wait for it — wristlets or other devices for visitors willing to lock down at a Hawaii resort.

Gov. David Ige signed a proclamation today empowering the counties to establish resort travel bubbles.

The concept, which isn’t out of the starting gate yet, would give quarantining visitors from in-state and out-of-state 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 or device would alert police.Their contact with those not subject to a self-quarantine also would be limited.

Ige said, “We continue to work on digitizing and refining the travel screening process as well as developing enforceable, safe alternatives to self-quarantine.”

At the same time, Ige also extended the interisland and trans-Pacific mandatory 14-day self quarantines to Sept. 30. Thursday’s extensions followed Ige’s announcement Tuesday that state will wait until at least Oct. 1 to begin a program to allow passengers with approved negative COVID-19 tests taken within 72 hours of their trip to Hawaii to bypass the out-of-state passenger quarantine.

Fans have touted resort bubbles as a way to allow Hawaii tourism to have at least a soft opening before a broader pre-arrivals testing program is available. Although, critics have said it’s unclear how much travel demand that they would generate given that visitors must consent to tracking and agree not to venture outside of resorts.

While the debate wages, most of Hawaii’s visitor industry is more focused on getting ready for the return of trans-Pacific travel, which has fallen off dramatically amid COVID-19-related fears and lockdowns.

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said, “It’s difficult to predict how much demand such a (resort bubble) proposal would entice.”

“Each day a pre-arrival testing program is delayed creates significant economic damage to our state, Hawaiian Airlines and other Hawaii companies that directly or indirectly depend on air travel and tourism to stay in business and keep workers employed,” Da Silva said.

Normally on any given day in August, some 35,000 out-of-state passengers arrive in Hawaii and most of them are tourists. The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that only 2,047 out-of-state passengers arrived on Wednesday and only 458 were visitors.

The HTA reported June arrivals were down more than 98%. HTA hasn’t reported July or August arrivals yet; however, judging by the latest hotel report from STR, there wasn’t much strengthening.

In July, hotel occupancy fell 64.4 percentage points to 20.9% occupancy. The average daily rate dropped nearly 43% to just over $174. Revenue per available room (RevPAR), the revenue each room earns regardless whether it’s occupied, declined 86% to just over $36. Statewide revenue fell more than 92% to $33.3 million.

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said “July is one of our peak months and it was bleak. Twenty percent, that’s about as good as it’s going to get for the year while the quarantines are in place and the pre-arrivals testing program is sidelined.”

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, one of the largest Hawaii wholesalers, said he’s not sure how resort bubbles will do, but figures it’s worth a shot.

“We have already canceled over $4 million in books scheduled for September and that’s just the air, hotel and rental piece,” Richards said. “If this is the only way to reopen Hawaii tourism, let’s do it and see what happens. We have to get tourism open for everybody.”

Ben Rafter, CEO of OLS Hotels & Resorts and an HTA board member, isn’t a fan.

Doing geofencing for some of the resorts as a way to let some tourists in would be a big mistake. It is way off-brand, and it will ruin experiences and memories for visitors,” Rafter said.

Still, it’s got possibilities, according to Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami and Maui Mayor Mike Victorino, who joined Ige at Thursday’s media briefing.

Hannemann estimates that once all the details are in place, a resort bubble concept could debut in two to three weeks.

“It’s not the ultimate solution that we want which is the reopening of trans-Pacific travel, but it is a way to give some resorts a chance to reopen and put some of their people back to work,” he said. “Times are really tough. HLTA held three food drives over the last few weeks and we distributed over 2,000 bundles of food to hospitality workers, the majority were Unite Here Local 5 employees.”

Kawakami and Victorino say they are seriously considering implementing resort bubbles, but declined to provide a launch timetable given that there are more logistics to work out.

For instance, participating resorts would have to submit safety plans and go through other hoops to get approval. The resorts must undertake the equipment purchases and the cost of ensuring that their resort bubbles are safe for staff, guests and the community.

There also needs to be more dialogue about how to protect workers and the communities in which they live. Victorino has suggested having small groups of workers live on property while working five-day shifts. After the workers complete their shifts, they can be tested for coronavirus and if they are positive their contacts will be easy to trace. He’s also pushing for doctors on property as well as quarantine and isolation facilities.

Donna Domingo, president of ILWU Local 142, has said the union is open to the concept, but that it needs more vetting to ensure that workers, who will be at a high risk of exposure, are kept safe.

Angela Vento, general manager of the Wailea Beach Resort, said “We all want to do the right thing in the right way so we are weighing the pros and cons.”

“We want to find ways to find solutions to have safe travel open successfully,” she said.

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