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Hawaii’s visitor industry slowly reopening

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, was one of the hotels that opened on Sunday. Front desk agent Tomoko Jones with Director of Public Relations Huy Vo, far right, wore masks while working.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, was one of the hotels that opened on Sunday. Front desk agent Tomoko Jones with Director of Public Relations Huy Vo, far right, wore masks while working.

Waikiki wasn’t exactly raining visitors Sunday, but there were some signs that the launch of the state’s pre-arrival testing plan has brought some green shoots.

The streets and sidewalks of the state’s top tourism district were less barren. Biki rental bikes were back. There were lines in some restaurants. And, a few more shuttered hotels reopened, including The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, which had been closed to new hotel reservations since the state’s first COVID-19 lockdowns at the end of March.

Traffic at the sparkling clean, luxury Ritz-Carlton wasn’t bustling on the first day of the resort’s reopening to trans-Pacific travelers. However, guests had returned to the resort’s fitness center and pools, which overlook the Pacific Ocean.

Doug Chang, Ritz-Carlton general manager, said more employees are back on the job, too, after undergoing intense preparations to implement new safety protocols.

Chang said the resort’s occupancy in October, when it reopened for kamaaina travelers, was in the midteens and is expected to increase slightly this month when Hawaii allows trans- Pacific travelers from the U.S. and Japan, starting Friday, to use a pre-arrival testing program to bypass a passenger quarantine. The resort also has a base of business from its privately owned residences, he said.

“We’ve been able to bring back about 32% to 33% of our ladies and gentlemen,” Chang said. “Our employment picture is cautious. Initially, everybody was really excited when the first arrivals started to come in, but demand has waned off a little bit.”

Chang said the resort’s staffing forecast changes weekly. While the Thanksgiving holiday is strong, so far, December hasn’t come in as robust, he said.

“We anticipate that people are waiting longer to book. These are uncertain times but we are optimistic,” he said.

Jack Richards, CEO and president of Pleasant Holidays, said Hawaii’s complicated pre-arrival testing protocol, especially where to find the right tests from Hawaii’s trusted partners, also has limited demand. Continued visitor industry closures, ranging from lodging venues to food and beverage places, as well as amenities and attractions, also have dampened bookings.

Richards said only about 60% of Pleasant Holiday’s 208 Hawaii hotel partners had opened in October. By the end of this month, he expects 89% will have reopened, with 96% slated to be operating in December.

“There will be greater demand as more of Hawaii opens up,” Richards said. “Visitors want to know that they can stay at their favorite places, eat at the restaurants they like and that there will be things for them to do when they are there.”

Fear of COVID-19 continues to be the greatest impediment, said Paul Brewbaker, principal of TZ Economics.

“The lodging people were saying, ‘As soon as you remove the quarantine, people are going to come back,’” Brewbaker said. “And, I was telling them, ‘No, you guys. It’s the coronavirus. It’s not the quarantine.’”

“If we’re lucky and the coronavirus is mitigated, then we have a shot at getting people to come back,” he said. “But only if we ourselves have by then developed a credible reputation for mitigation and containment. While Hawaii has done a pretty good job, it’s not good enough.”

Brewbaker said when business groups or clients ask him about Hawaii’s tourism rebound, he tells them not to think that the slow restart is only related to the U.S. presidential election, a third wave of coronavirus cases or other current circumstances.

“It’s not like a November thing. It’s not a fall thing. This right here, this is 2021,” he said.” And, even when we get a vaccine, this is what it looks like for a year.”

To be sure, Chris Kam, OmniTrak president and COO, said preliminary results from the company’s October TravelTrakAmerica survey of U.S. travelers, who have traveled at least once in the last 12 months, suggest that travelers largely continue to keep their travel plans on hold.

Some 33% of past-year travelers surveyed in October said they have leisure travel plans for drive-to and fly-to trips in the next six months, a level even with the 33% who reported such travel plans in September, he said. Meanwhile, Kam said 20% reported having plans to take a leisure trip by air in the next 12 months — that’s nearly even with the 19% who reported such plans in September.

With 8,750 surveys of the usual 9,500 monthly travelers completed, Kam said October also is showing some early signs of strengthened travel confidence.

In October, 35% of travelers said they are more interested in taking a vacation than they were at the same time a year ago. Kam said that’s a slight increase from those surveyed in September (31%).

In addition, Kam said 42% of travelers surveyed in October felt that travel was less safe than a year ago, but that was a slight improvement from the 45% who felt this way in September. By comparison, this measure was at 28% in the early COVID days in the first quarter.

“The bottom line to all this is that a return to travel is largely on hold, but as we have seen in the past, leisure travel is resilient,” Kam said.

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