In the second week of Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program, visitor arrivals fell 25% compared with the first week.
The first week brought 27,028 visitors, but that number dropped to 20,188 during the second week.
“If you look at the data, it shows the first week was the strongest and it dropped off after that,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, one of Hawaii’s largest travel wholesalers.
The pre-travel testing program allows visitors to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine. But the quarantine isn’t the only impediment to recovering tourism.
“The election, rising COVID-19 cases on the mainland, all of that is playing into concerns about travel,” said Chris Kam, OmniTrak president and COO. “Most of the projections that I’ve seen, you don’t see signs of life in Hawaii’s visitor industry until the second quarter of next year.”
Kam said the latest nationwide travel demand research from September didn’t bode well for a rapid recovery for Hawaii tourism. The number of U.S. travelers queried in September who had travel plans (by car or air) in the next six months declined to its lowest level since March. 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, he said.
Starting Oct. 15 the state began the pre-arrival testing program allowing U.S. visitors to bypass the 14-day quarantine if they provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test from a trusted Hawaii testing partner taken within 72 hours of their departure for Hawaii.
Some members of the community, who fear an overgrowth of tourism will lead to a surge of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, are thankful for the slow beginning. Still, the lackluster start has been hard on the state’s visitor industry.
In November, Hawaii will make Japan the first international market to be allowed to join the state’s pre-arrival testing program. However, visitors from Japan aren’t initially expected to bring much tourism growth. The Japanese government still has a travel advisory in effect for the U.S. and requires visitors from Japan to quarantine for 14 days upon their return to Japan.
“Visitor arrivals haven’t hit a sustainable number for our industry yet,” said Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann. “Right now I’d say those hotels that are open are looking at 30% occupancy on the high side, and I’d be surprised if we hit 50% by the end of the year. We’ve got to be at at least 60% so we aren’t bleeding and we can return more people to work.”
The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported Thursday that only 18,868 visitors came to Hawaii in September, down 97% from the previous year.
Jennifer Chun, HTA director of tourism research, said travel agency bookings for U.S. travelers to Hawaii were down nearly 68% for Oct. 15-31. The declines widened to about a 69% drop in both November and December.
What’s on the books now for U.S. visits to Hawaii in the first quarter of 2021 is down about 72% from this time in 2019 and down about 48% for the second quarter and 40% for the third quarter.
Some travelers are electing to wait to book leisure trips until a COVID-19 vaccine or therapeutic is readily available.
Pleasant Holidays’ Richards said news of the the recent outbreak on Lanai hasn’t been good for Hawaii tourism, either.
“What people hear is there’s an outbreak in Hawaii, they don’t know it’s in Lanai. The news doesn’t go that deep,” Richards said.
Then there’s all of the negative publicity about visitors to Hawaii who have run afoul of the state’s pre-travel testing requirements as well as government restrictions, which include rules about mask wearing and social gathering.
Hawaii is quickly getting a reputation in national media as a destination where visitors must follow the rules or face strict consequences. Also, it’s not easy for visitors to determine what’s open, from activities and attractions to food and beverage places.
“If visitors are going to pay all that money to come to Hawaii, they want to know what’s open and what they can experience,” Richards said. “Only about 56% of the resorts that we offer are open in October. Some people want to stay at a specific resort, and they’ll wait until it opens to book.”
Hannemann said government and tourism officials are working hard to provide updated messaging on COVID-19 restrictions, which differ by county, and minimize inconsistencies in Hawaii’s traveler entry process.
Even so, some 10,552 out of the 111,204 trans-Pacific and interisland passengers screened through the Safe Travels Hawaii program Oct. 15-29 have had to quarantine.
This commonly occurs because a passenger didn’t take a COVID-19 test before arriving in Hawaii, they took the wrong test, their test wasn’t from a trusted testing partner or something went amiss when the results were uploaded to the Safe Travels Hawaii application.
Since the Hawaii Safe Travels screening process started, some 3,800 passengers have gotten a notice that their tests needed to be verified manually, a process that initially led to a backlog that caused thousands of passengers to wait.
Caroline Julian-Freitas, spokeswoman for the state Office of Enterprise Technology Services, said Thursday that ETS now has an additional 120 people trained to verify tests. She said the state has only 300 tests that are pending review.