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Low COVID-19 counts key to restoring Hawaii tourism

Continued low COVID-19 case counts in Hawaii and acceleration in distribution of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to play a key role in recovering Hawaii tourism, which should get a boost next month when Kauai rejoins the Safe Travels Hawaii program.

State Department of Health officials Sunday reported one new coronavirus-related death on Maui and 53 new infections statewide, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 445 fatalities and 27,891 virus cases.

Sunday’s new statewide infection cases include 25 on Oahu, 12 on Maui, eight on Hawaii island, two on Kauai and six residents diagnosed outside of Hawaii, according to state health officials. The statistics released Sunday reflect the new infection cases reported to the department Friday.

By island, Oahu has 339 active cases, Maui has 272, the Big Island has 41 and Kauai has six.

Low case counts, especially on Kauai, were part of the reason that Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami asked to rejoin Safe Travels Hawaii and Gov. David Ige approved the request Friday.

Starting April 5, travelers to Kauai who follow the Safe Travels rules and test negative prior to arriving may avoid the island’s 10-day quarantine.

Travel to Kauai plummeted after Kawakami opted out of the Safe Travels program, effective Dec. 2, requiring all travelers to Kauai to undergo a mandatory 10-day quarantine with no option to test out.

Starting Jan. 5, Kauai ended the monthlong tourism shutdown by allowing interisland passengers to participate in Hawaii Safe Travels and introducing its own trans-Pacific entry program. But those changes did little to boost Kauai tourism, which has lagged the rest of the state due to its stricter travel requirements.

In January the year-over-year drop in visitor arrivals on the rest of the islands ranged from 72% on Maui to 79% on Hawaii island to nearly 85% on Oahu and almost 97% on Kauai.

In January, visitor spending on Kauai was $10.2 million, a drop of nearly 95% from the same month in 2020. Total visitor days also were down almost 90%, compared to January 2020. There were 3,987 visitors on Kauai in January, compared with 113,847 visitors a year ago.

Members of the visitor industry, even outside of Kauai, have said confusion surrounding travel entry requirements across the island have contributed to fairly lackluster tourism results statewide. Several visitor industry leaders have testified in favor of House Bill 1286, which would require consistent statewide requirements for Safe Travels Hawaii.

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said this week on www.Covidpau.org that recovering tourism, along with robust vaccine distribution, and federal spending are key to Hawaii’s economic recovery.

Bonham said Hawaii went from 660,000 employed before the pandemic to roughly 500,000.

“We lost about 160,000 jobs in the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “That recovered a little bit when we reopened from the first shutdown; then we lost a little bit more when Oahu went back into shutdown.”

Bonham said the employment count rose to 590,000 after Safe Travels opened in October.

“We saw a good February; we’re expecting to see a good spring break; but the summer season is really crucial,” he said. “Our forecast calls for roughly another 40,000 people coming back to work in 2021.”

Bonham said as much as 60% to 70% of the U.S. traveling public and Hawaii residents could be vaccinated by summer and that it will be important to communicate the process for travel in June and July when the risk of COVID-19 will have greatly diminished.

The state’s COVID-19 vaccine summary said Friday that 391,116 vaccines have been administered of the 496,050 received by the state. About 16% of the general population in Hawaii has received at least one dose of the vaccine, while about 64% of those ages 75 and over have received one dose.

Bonham said while more federal money is expected to buoy Hawaii’s economy, it will run out. When it does, Hawaii will need to have recovered the tourism and more local-focused economies.

“We need to have that back strong enough to sustain employment so we don’t lag the country too severely for the next several years,” he said.

A UHERO forecast released Friday estimated that while full tourism recovery was still several years out, arrivals would recover half their pandemic losses by July, and visitor spending would recover nearly 70% of its losses by year-end.

UHERO has anticipated that visitor arrivals will grow to more than 4.9 million this year, and visitor spending will reach nearly $9.3 billion. In 2019 as many as 10.4 million visitors came to Hawaii and spent more than $17.9 billion.

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