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Japan helps diversify Hawaii’s tourism recovery

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Waikiki businesses are hopeful that Japanese tourists will return. The state’s 
pre-travel testing program reopened tourism for Japanese visitors Friday. Outdoor seating for Wolfgang’s Steakhouse awaited customers Sunday at the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Waikiki businesses are hopeful that Japanese tourists will return. The state’s pre-travel testing program reopened tourism for Japanese visitors Friday. Outdoor seating for Wolfgang’s Steakhouse awaited customers Sunday at the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki.

Only a few thousand visitors from Japan are expected to come to Hawaii during the remainder of this year.

But that trickle is important to supporting Hawaii’s economy, which has a large part of its visitor industry infrastructure built around catering to Japanese tourists.

Also, it benefits the industry to have visitors from more than just one market.

Tourists from the mainland began coming in larger numbers last month. Unfortunately, the U.S. is now setting daily records for new coronavirus cases, which could cut into demand for travel to Hawaii.

The U.S. reported more than 126,000 positive cases and more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday, according to the most recent data from Johns Hopkins University.

Saturday was the fourth day in a row that new cases topped 100,000 as the country has broken its own record for daily cases with nearly every passing day this week.

Paul Brewbaker, principal of TZ Economics, said, “It’s just bad luck that we just happened to reopen mainland tourism at the precise moment this wave was building and forming. To me there’s no upside potential, nothing but downside risk.”

Brewbaker’s less concerned about reopening tourism from Japan, which has a much better COVID-19 track record than the U.S. and generally has a mask-­compliant population.

“Why admit people from the mainland when it’s as toxic as it is today? Why wouldn’t Asian travelers be the first to come to Hawaii? OK, maybe that was difficult, but still,” Brewbaker said.

In May the Hawaii Executive Collaborative got a blessing from the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 to begin exploring a pilot “travel bubble” that would have allowed for relaxed travel restrictions between the two destination. But efforts were complicated by government restrictions on both sides and a summer surge of COVID-19 cases on the mainland and in Hawaii.

Instead, Hawaii created a pre-arrival testing program that began welcoming U.S. travelers Oct. 15. The program allowed U.S. travelers to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine if they could provide proof of a negative nucleic acid amplification coronavirus test taken from an approved lab within 72 hours of the last leg of their departure for Hawaii.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said that between Oct. 15 and Saturday, 196,122 travelers were screened through the Safe Travels Hawaii program. As many as 132,188 of them were visitors, and there were 63,934 residents.

“About 85% have gotten a successful pre-test and been exempted; only 15% have gone to quarantine,” Green said. “People are doing pretty well. It can’t be perfect, but our state is doing more than any other to prevent spread.”

The first visitors from Japan to take part in the state’s pre-travel testing program started arriving Friday under an agreement that allows Japanese travelers to visit Hawaii under the same program as domestic passengers.

Adding Japan to the state’s pre-arrival testing program is part of a multilayered approach to reopen Hawaii’s economy safely and gradually. It’s also expected to serve as a pilot to reopen other international markets such as Canada, Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand, although all of these nations, like Japan, have governmental restrictions that are likely to impede travel demand.

Attracting Japanese tourists to Hawaii will be hampered by the requirement that Japanese nationals returning from trips abroad quarantine for 14 days upon their return home. Also, the Japanese government still has the U.S. listed under a Level 3 travel restriction, which advises Japanese citizens to “reconsider travel” to the U.S.

Friday’s flight operated by All Nippon Airways brought only 64 passengers from Japan to Hawaii. But there’ll be about eight flights this month from Japan, including a flight every Saturday from Hawaiian Airlines. Japan Airlines will start bringing back travelers from Japan on Tuesday.

Eric Takahata, managing director for Hawaii Tourism Japan, Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Japan marketing contractor, said only a few thousand visitors from Japan are expected to come to Hawaii in November and December. Hawaii might finish 2020 just shy of 300,000 arrivals from Japan, and most of those, about 250,000, came in January and February before the pandemic really hit.

“It will be all free and independent travelers. Groups still cannot operate until the travel advisory is lifted,” Takahata said.

Still, the program will provide a pathway to rebuilding the state’s top international visitor market, which brought roughly 1.6 million visitors from Japan to Hawaii in 2019 and generated nearly $2.2 billion in visitor spending.

There are signs that demand will soon grow. Carriers have begun adding flights, and some of the Japan group travel sellers have begun making plans for group tourism to return to Hawaii in December.

The government of Japan still has not indicated when it will lift its travel quarantine for returning residents. However, Hiroyuki “Keith” Kitagawa, president and CEO of JTB Hawaii, said the government recently announced that “business travelers residing in Japan will be exempt from self-quarantining for two weeks after returning to Japan as long as they adhere to prescribed safety measures for short-term business trips.”

“This, too, is another big step towards a full-scale reopening,” Kitagawa said.

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said business travel between Japan and Hawaii is a relatively small segment.

“Ultimately, demand is unlikely to pick up materially until the Japanese government further relaxes its quarantine requirements for all returning travelers,” Da Silva said. “We hope bilateral dialogue will lead to a reciprocal program soon.”

Regardless, Hawaiian already is expanding beyond the once-weekly service between Honolulu and Narita that it resumed Oct. 1 to support essential travel. With the Japan pre-travel testing program in place, Hawaiian will increase its Narita frequency to twice weekly on Nov. 17 and four times weekly on Dec. 19, when it also begins three weekly nonstop flights between Honolulu and Osaka. On Dec. 21, Hawaiian will start thrice-weekly service between Honolulu and Haneda.

“Even as we resume more flights, our Japan-Hawaii capacity is only approximately 12% of our pre-pandemic schedule. It may take time for demand to return, but these additional flights reflect our strong commitment to the Japan market,” Da Silva said.

Sam Shenkus, Royal Hawaiian Center vice president and director of marketing, said the center doesn’t expect visitor traffic from Japan to pick up materially until the third or fourth quarter of 2021.

To be sure, Japan travel seller H.I.S. is one of the few businesses that still hasn’t reopened in the center, which is now about 94% open, Shenkus said.


The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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