Turtle Bay Resort is still closed to guests, but the 450 construction workers readying the property for a summer reopening are a sign that better times are coming for Hawaii’s visitor industry — if they aren’t already here.
Tom Donovan, Turtle Bay’s vice president and managing director, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Friday during a walk-through at the North Shore resort that it’s slated to reopen July 1, debuting the priciest renovation since the resort first opened in 1973.
Donovan said interest in the resort’s reopening has been robust. It’s already got a “good number of rooms on the books,” and he’s “confident that we’ll have a pretty strong summer.”
That coincides with what Hawaii’s visitor industry is seeing in the market. The most trans-Pacific travelers since Hawaii’s travel shutdown — some 24,243 — were screened by Safe Travels Hawaii on Saturday. The next-best day was March 20, when 23,978 trans-Pacific passengers were screened.
Over the past weekend, Thursday to Sunday, Hawaii Tourism Authority data shows that an average of 22,050 trans-Pacific travelers were screened by Safe Travels Hawaii, the state’s COVID-19 testing travel entry program.
The weekend activity continued the spring break uptick that emerged in Hawaii about the second week of March and brought March’s average daily trans-Pacific traveler screenings, through Sunday, to nearly 16,355. However, actual trans-Pacific arrivals in March were likely higher than reported by HTA, as Kauai won’t rejoin Safe Travels until Monday.
Since most of the daily trans-Pacific traffic currently comes from the U.S. market, the closest pre-COVID comparison is the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s daily domestic passengers count, which averaged just over 24,445 during March 2019.
Returning visitors to Hawaii are expected to strengthen as COVID-19 vaccine distribution widens in Hawaii and elsewhere and as more flights are restored to meet growing travel demand.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of the travel seller Pleasant Holidays, said, “We’re seeing travel demand run all the way through to December.”
Mokulele Airlines held a news conference Monday to dedicate the newly renovated Mokulele Commuter Terminal. The carrier also announced that it’s starting four-times-a-day service between Hilo and Kahului, the only nonstop flights between the two airports, on April 19.
Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO Peter Ingram said Friday on Spotlight Hawaii that by next month, with the addition of service to Austin, Texas, the carrier will have added four new routes to meet new demand. Ingram said the carrier is seeing consistent load factors in the mid-60%-to-70% range and has begun calling some furloughed workers back to work.
Alaska Airlines spokesman Daniel Chun said that starting next week, the carrier will add an additional six daily flights and will restart service to Lihue and from San Francisco to Honolulu and Kahului.
“As spring and summer travel are showing signs of recovery, we are very optimistic as travelers return safely to Hawaii,” Chun said. “This summer, we will be operating 30 daily flights, which is similar to the number of flights we had during the same period in 2019.”
The current travel expansion extends nationwide. Since March 11 the Transportation Security Administration has screened more than 1 million daily passengers per day at U.S. airports. On Monday, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein tweeted that more than 1.57 million travelers were screened at airports across the nation Sunday.
“It was the busiest day in a little more than a year when 1,714,372 people were screened on March 12, 2020. Mask up!” Farbstein said.
Still, tourism is fragile and could suffer setbacks if COVID cases increase significantly enough.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made an impassioned plea to Americans on Monday not to let their guard down in the fight against COVID-19, saying she has a recurring feeling “of impending doom.”
Cases of the virus are up about 10% over the past week from the previous week, to about 60,000 cases per day, with both hospitalizations and deaths ticking up as well, Walensky said.
During Spotlight Hawaii on Monday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Safe Travels has allowed Hawaii to reopen tourism safely and that visitors are contributing “very little” to Hawaii’s COVID counts.
“We still have the lowest rate of COVID in the country. We have the lowest mortality rate across the whole pandemic,” he said. “I’m not worried about travel-related cases right now.”
Donovan said if travel demand holds, Turtle Bay expects to see about 600 employees at their jobs on reopening day.
“We hope just about all of them will return,” he said. “Customers influenced by the pandemic want space, and we have that space. We’ve got 1,300 acres, including five miles of shoreline.”
Turtle Bay closed for the pandemic March 26, 2020, and took advantage of the idling by speeding up the pace of its first renovation since BRE Hotels &Resorts acquired the resort in 2018.
“It’s more of of a transformation than a renovation,” Donovan said, adding that Turtle Bay has tapped Los Angeles-based designer and architect Dianna Wong to oversee the redesign, which was inspired by the North Shore’s surfers and highlights the property’s coastline and other natural assets.
The lobby renovation opens view planes to the ocean. There’s a new terraced pool deck, with a family and kids pool and an adults-only pool and bar. The 42 Ocean Bungalows, which line the coastline, have been redesigned and come summer will have an exclusive pool.
New dining concepts include a lobby bar, called Off the Lip, which will feature a sunken footprint and offer coastal and sunset views. The resort’s main restaurant, Alaia, will focus on sustainable agriculture, including produce from the resort’s own farm.
There will be a new lobby cafe, Ho‘olana, offering of panoramic views along with locally sourced coffees and light bites. A new gathering spot, called The Surf House, will pay tribute to surfing icons.
Vista Level guests who book upgraded amenities with their room will have their own lounge, called The Club, which offers ocean and pool deck views.
Donovan said BRE is making significant investments in Turtle Bay. In addition to the current renovation, it’s extended irrigation lines from the golf course to shore up its famous banyan tree, which had been suffering from saltwater encroachment.
An upgrade to the resort’s 410 guestrooms and suites will start later this year, he said.
Alicia McCumbers, Turtle Bay’s activities director, who is part of a small group of resort employees who worked through the pandemic, said she’s excited to see the renovations unfold because each day brings the resort closer to reopening.
“I miss everyone, so it’s nice to see us slowly coming back,” McCumbers said. “We’re the largest North Shore employer and a huge economic engine for the community. When we reopen, all the businesses around us will benefit, too.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.