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Hawaii tourism recovery not seen until summer, hotel execs say

Longtime Hawaii hotel industry executives don’t see any meaningful recovery in tourism until the summer even though the COVID-19 vaccines began getting dispersed throughout the United States this month.

The state is now in what historically has been its peak time of the year for visitors — Dec. 24 through Jan. 3 — but the hotels that are open are currently at just 15% to 23% occupancy compared with what normally would be between 93% and 97%, according to veteran hotelier Jerry Gibson.

Strict and confusing coronavirus travel guidelines to Hawaii and a reluctance to board a plane without being vaccinated are among the reasons cited why visitor arrivals have nearly dried up, according to Gibson and Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting.

In November, arrivals plunged 77.3% from the year-earlier period to 183,779, according to data released Monday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. That brings the 11-month total to 2.48 million visitors — a far cry from the record 10.4 million visitors who came to the islands in 2019.

“We’re really thrilled the vaccine is not only in Hawaii, but making its way through the states. We”ll see that progress for sure as we go forward. Slowly, we think people will feel good about traveling again,” said Gibson, vice president for BRE Hotels & Resorts, which owns the Turtle Bay Resort (which is closed for renovations) on the North Shore; Grand Wailea on Maui; Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, Maui; and the Courtyard King Kamehameha in Kona.

“It will take a while for the vaccine to settle, and it may be eight to 10 months before people think about traveling on a regular basis and then another year and a half until we’re back to some type of percentage we’re all pleased with,” Gibson added. ‘This will not be an overnight thing. It will be very slow going forward, but we’ll get there eventually.”

Earlier this month the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization forecast that Hawaii will end the year with 2.67 million arrivals by air but then see a 65.4% bump next year to 4.4 million.

In another forecast the state Department of Business, Economic and Development projected 2.73 million arrivals this year, including cruise ship passengers, with arrivals to jump 126.2% next year to nearly 6.2 million.

Hawaii’s top market, the U.S. West, accounted for 137,452 visitors in November. That was down 63.4% from the year-earlier period. The U.S. East brought in 40,205 visitors, down 73.3%.

Japan, the state’s top international market, had just 524 arrivals, down 99.6%. But that market should get a lift because starting Nov. 6, travelers from Japan were allowed to bypass the mandatory 10-day quarantine in Hawaii with a negative COVID test.

Canada, another key market, had 802 arrivals, off 98.4%, while the “all others” category, which includes Guam and the Philippines, accounted for 4,795 arrivals and was down 94.3%.

Vieira said the vaccine will be good for Hawaii in the long run because it will build confidence in travel.

“I hope in the summer we’ll see an uptick,” he said. “But in the short term it’s bad for us because people are going to wait until they get their vaccine.”

Vieira blasted the state’s new testing policy that went into effect Nov. 24 and requires all trans-Pacific travelers participating in the pre-travel testing program to have a negative test result before their departure to Hawaii, and further stipulates that test results would no longer be accepted if they come in after a traveler arrives in the state.

“We need to simplify the rules and align every island instead of changing all the time,” Vieira said. “It’s about bringing back workers, and we can’t bring people back until we get rid of that stupid rule. Let’s get the test simplified and allow people to test when they arrive if they didn’t get the result back. That will allow our industry to get up to 40%, and we’ll bring back more workers and boost the economy. This rule about getting the results before you get on the plane is really hurting the economy and makes no sense, especially since we have a full facility at the airport that can do it. Even if people follow the rule and take it within 72 hours but don’t get the results back in time, they still have to quarantine, and that doesn’t make sense. Why are we punishing people for doing what they’re supposed to do?”

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