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Hawaii tourism gains momentum

Despite doldrums in January and February, Hawaii’s visitor industry has rounded the corner and taken off.

Jack Richards, Pleasant Holidays president and CEO, said that over the past two weeks, the company has seen Hawaii bookings and travel increase by 30%.

“We haven’t seen travel demand for Hawaii this strong for over a year,” Richards said. “I thought we would have a U-shaped recovery; it’s V-shaped. January and February were terrible, but we’ve gone from zero to 150 mph in two weeks.”

Richards said Hawaii saw increased travel demand when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began requiring travelers coming into the U.S. from international destinations to take a COVID-19 test.

“The international testing requirement evened the playing field,” Richards said.

Richards said Hawaii tourism also has gained advantages from the surge in vaccine distribution across the U.S., which has fueled travel demand.

Across the nation, air travel is picking up. On Sunday the Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1.5 million passengers. TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in a tweet, “The last time throughput topped 1.5 million was March 15, 2020 — just more than a year ago.”

Farbstein said Sunday also marked the 11th consecutive day with TSA checkpoint volume exceeding 1 million.

On Saturday, Hawaii Safe Travels reported screening 28,424 travelers, the most since the pandemic began. Safe Travels began to see a dramatic uptick in travelers screened during the second week of March. From March 15 to Sunday, traveler screenings topped 20,000 every day except March 16.

Ben Rafter, president and CEO of Springboard Hospitality, said Hawaii’s tourism industry has seen continual upward trends since February.

“While that doesn’t mean that everyone related to the tourism industry will be pleased with the numbers year over year, it’s moving in the right direction,” Rafter said.

To be sure, February still wasn’t a month to love for Hawaii’s visitor industry, especially Hawaii hotels. Occupancy at hotels statewide in February hit 30.5%, according to Tennessee-based STR, a hotel analytics company.

Statewide occupancy in February was better than in January when it was just 23.3%. Still, the results were 53.4 percentage points below the same time last year, before the pandemic caused Hawaii tourism to plummet. Even with the improvement, the industry was far from profitable. Most hoteliers require consistent occupancy above 50% to get out of the red.

The February occupancy drop continued to drag down revenue per available room, which is the amount that a hotel earns for each room regardless of its occupancy status. Statewide RevPAR in February was $78.97, still 69.9% below the same month a year ago.

One bright spot, however, was that Hawaii hotels in February were able to command a pretty strong average daily rate. The average daily rate at Hawaii hotels statewide in February was $258.77, only 16.5% below February 2020.

Rafter said hotel performance in February was better on Maui and Hawaii island, which tend to attract a higher percentage of North American travelers than Oahu.

Maui’s hotel industry is promising enough that it hasn’t lost the eye of investors and developers. The AC Hotel by Marriott Maui Wailea has announced that it will open a new 110-room, 12-suite hotel in April.

The Maui Planning Commission also is slated to hear an item today on expansion plans for Maui Coast Hotel in Kihei that include a six-story, 170-room addition and other improvements. The project is on 4.8 acres at 2239 S. Kihei Road.

The virtual meeting, which begins at 9 a.m., is accessible on BlueJeans. To watch the meeting or provide video testimony, visit the link maui.bluejeans.com/510100484. To testify on video, sign up using the chat function. To listen to the meeting or provide testimony via phone, dial 888-748-9073 (toll-free) or 408-915-6290 or 408-740-7256 and enter code 510100484.

Kauai hotels, which pulled out of the state’s COVID-19 traveler testing program Dec. 5 and won’t rejoin it until April 5, had the worst February hotel performance of any island in the state. Oahu hotels, which are more heavily dependent on international arrivals, had the second-worst February performance.

But members of Hawaii’s visitor industry are hopeful that continued loosening of government restrictions, as appropriate, will continue the spring break travel gains well into this year and beyond.

The industry got a little bit of a setback Monday when House Bill 1286, which would have created a consistent statewide policy to allow vaccinated travelers to enter the state without quarantining, was deferred by three committees. However, the measure might still have a chance later in the session as a Senate bill (SB 266) has been amended to include House Bill 1286.

Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said Monday that the measure is “worthy of consideration and going forward.”

“The measure would motivate people to get vaccinated and make it easier for local residents to travel amongst the islands,” Hannemann said. “Vaccination is the key to recovering our economy.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green has supported lifting the interisland COVID-19 testing requirement and quarantines, especially if they are tied to vaccines — maybe by April 1 or 15. He has said that he’s targeting May to remove trans-Pacific travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers.

“If that happened, it would be a game-changer for Hawaii tourism,” Richards said. “We’re getting a lot of bookings for same-month travel. We think people have cabin fever and they’re booking a trip as soon as they get vaccinated.”

Richards said the stimulus checks that were distributed to individuals and families in the last round of federal relief also are probably helping to bolster the travel industry.

Likewise, Springboard’s Rafter said direct stimulus payments to tourism businesses have helped to shore up the visitor industry.

“As a smaller local owner, most of our hotels were eligible,” he said. “It’s extremely helpful to prepare them to keep moving forward and back to full staffing.”

Hawaii’s live-venue operators, promoters or theatrical producers, independent movie theatre operators, museum operatorsand talent representatives also got a bit of good news Monday from the Small Business Administration.

SBA said that live event businesses affected by the pandemic can begin applying April 8 for the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Fund, which was included in the COVID-19 relief legislation passed by Congress and signed into law in December.

“For museums, music venues, performing arts centers, independent movie theaters, and other live venues in Hawaii, help is here,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee said in a statement. “This pandemic has been particularly brutal for businesses that depend on people being able to gather in person so this new funding will be a big help.”

For more information, visit Schatz’s online resource guide at schatz.senate.gov/coronavirus/small- businesses/live-venues.

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