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After Hawaii tourism reopens, will there be a flood or trickle of visitors?

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The waiting area of Southwest Airlines at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport was nearly empty on Friday.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The waiting area of Southwest Airlines at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport was nearly empty on Friday.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                John De Fries, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, says he expects Hawaii tourism will begin regrowing from a base of about 5,000 visitors a day. He says he’s invoking the cultural principle of malama to “guide us through this chaos.”

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    John De Fries, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, says he expects Hawaii tourism will begin regrowing from a base of about 5,000 visitors a day. He says he’s invoking the cultural principle of malama to “guide us through this chaos.”

After seven months of tourism lockdowns, the state is finally ready to reopen the gates.

But what does that mean? Will there be a 2019-style flood of visitors or just a trickle when the Oct. 15 pre-arrival testing program begins?

Before COVID-19, an average of about 29,000 passengers arrived each day, most of them visitors. Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green has said that he anticipates Hawaii tourism will start up again with about 5,000 to 8,000 visitors a day once the pre-arrivals testing program provides a way for some trans-Pacific travelers to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine.

Green expects hotel room bookings will recover this month to 19% of the October 2019 level. In November, he anticipates hotel bookings will be at 32% of last year’s bookings, about 41% in December and January and nearly 46 % by February.

Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO John De Fries, who took over the job on Sept. 16, said he expects Hawaii tourism will begin regrowing from a base of 5,000 visitors a day.

“Oct. 15 is bringing with it a lot of expectations, but the truth is we are about to enter a new learning curve that is vertical — and every day we’ll have to make refinements,” De Fries said in an interview Friday. “There’s a sense of fear. Unlike crises of the past, where we hit a floor, and we get out and climbed back up. We haven’t hit the floor yet. We are still in a free fall.”

Chris Kam, OmniTrak president and COO, said the latest nationwide travel demand research from September doesn’t bode well for a rapid recovery for Hawaii tourism.

“In the near-term, the number of people with travel plans (by car or air) in the next six months has declined to the lowest level since March, when we began asking the question,” Kam said. “Only 33% of respondents said they had travel plans in the next six months, that’s down from 50% in early March and 39% in July.”

The news that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump were diagnosed with COVID-19 may hurt bookings unless they make speedy recoveries, Kam said. Also, it’s probably disadvantageous that parts of the U.S. and the rest of the world have begun to see COVID-19 surges again, Kam said.

Uncertainty over personal finances and the election also could dampen demand, he said. Visitors won’t feel that they can book with confidence until they know exactly what they’ll need to do to get out of quarantine and what they’ll be able to do while they are on vacation, Kam said. Also, some may simply be waiting for a vaccine or other new developments, he said.

In the longer-term, Kam said U.S. travelers appeared more hopeful about making travel plans, with 41% saying that they were likely to travel in the next 12 months by car. That number was only 19% when the trip was by plane, but Kam said that’s up from 16% in July and August.

As many as 45% of U.S. travelers that OmniTrak surveyed in September said they felt it was less safe to travel than a year ago, Kam said. Some 37% said they felt that their personal financial situations were less conducive to traveling than a year ago, he said.

Another looming issue, especially on Oahu, are all of the government restrictions that could interfere with travel demand and with visitor industry operations.

Jack Richards, president and CEO Of Pleasant Holidays, one of Hawaii’s larger wholesale travel sellers, said continued debate and lack of clarity is hurting Hawaii’s tourism recovery. However, Richards said that demand has started to build since Ige proclaimed Oct. 15 as the official start of a pre-arrivals testing program.

“The festive season was non-existent two weeks ago, now it’s picking up,” Richards said.

Pleasant Holidays has 208 hotel partners in Hawaii and Richards anticipates that by the end of October, 60% will have reopened across Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii island and Lanai. By November, Richards said 89% of Pleasant’s Hawaii hotel partners have said they plan to reopen and by December 96% are slated to be operating.

Richards said pent-up demand for Hawaii is strong, but it’s trailing Mexico, where there’s no testing requirement and visitors have a better understanding of what they can expect.

De Fries, who is the first Native Hawaiian at the helm of HTA, said he’s invoking the cultural principle of malama, which means take care, as the organizing principle to “guide us through this chaos.”

“For those who are pro-business, it’s going to feel like we are moving too slow. And for those who are pro-community and pro-health, they are going to feel like we are moving too fast,” he said. “Disagreements will arise, but when the decision is made, those of us in leadership positions need to find our role inside the proclamation… because at that point, for me at least, the debate is over and it’s time to put an action sequence together.”

De Fries said HTA’s coming marketing campaigns will focus on ensuring that visitors and residents understand that they have a kuleana (responsibility) to keep each other and Hawaii safe. A Malama Hawaii promotion, with a host of private partners, will give visitors an opportunity to stay a free night if they engage in a volunteer project to help regenerate the natural beauty and culture of Hawaii.

De Fries said everyone will asked to do their part to practice social distancing, wear masks and wash their hands.

“We need to malama the visitor and in turn, we need to educate the visitor on how to malama us. I’m concerned that if we don’t adopt this malama mindset, we’re going to open for a month and close for two weeks. We’re going to open for six weeks and we’re going to close for three weeks,” he said. “That’s not going to work and it will actually harm all the good that we are trying to build as a community. Trust is the new currency that we have to earn and exchange.”

Prior to COVID-19, De Fries said HTA had pivoted from a primarily tourism marketing agency to a tourism management agency. He said the current crisis hasn’t changed that focus or HTA’s four pillars, which are natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community, and brand marketing. Hawaii hosted a record 10.4 million visitors last year.

“On our way to 10.4 million visitors, we created a few hot spots where the visitor and the resident are beginning to collide,” De Fries said. “Right now, there’s one very happy pillar — natural resources.”

Beaches, trails and other natural settings have benefited from the lack of tourists this year.

HTA and the community, including business owners, now are grappling with contrasting problems like what to do with tourism infrastructure that is too big for the number of arrivals and how to get more industry people back to work.

“If I own a 100-room hotel on Kuhio Avenue, I might think of turning it into affordable housing or something like that and find a subsidy to carry me for the next five to 8 years,” De Fries said, adding that it’s going to take awhile for Hawaii to recover whether the magic number is seven million or 12 million arrivals.

De Fries said the state’s tourism industry is working with the community to create destination management action plans to find solutions to these dilemmas and others like where tourism arrivals should be capped.

“The fact that the whole engine got turned off has created this opportunity for communities to begin to organize, find their voice and begin to get definition and planning efforts to define what the future of tourism will look like,” he said. “Frankly, I have confidence in their abilities.”

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