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Safe Travels Hawaii program surpasses 2.5 million travelers

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / MARCH 15
                                The amount of visitors to Hawaii is expected to rise as the summer season approaches. Above, travelers enter the baggage claim lobby at Terminal 1 in Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / MARCH 15

    The amount of visitors to Hawaii is expected to rise as the summer season approaches. Above, travelers enter the baggage claim lobby at Terminal 1 in Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

Safe Travels Hawaii, the state’s traveler entry screening program, topped 2.5 million travelers this week, the six-month point in the reopening of Hawaii tourism — and appears headed for greater gains.

The program, which started Oct. 15, as of Wednesday had screened more than 1.9 million visitors and more than 630,000 residents. In a normal six-month period, Hawaii would have welcomed closer to 5 million visitors.

Travelers coming through the screening process have accelerated dramatically during the spring break season. The pace is expected to continue seasonally with upticks anticipated during Hawaii’s traditional peak summer season and the fourth quarter’s festive season.

“I believe the surge will continue through the summer,” said longtime hotelier Jerry Gibson. “Having said that, it’s really important that we make it as easy as possible for people to travel with the right safety procedures and messages. I hope a vaccine passport does come through in May. If it doesn’t, we could lose some of the pent-up demand.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Monday an announcement is imminent about amending Safe Travels to include a card that allows travelers who have completed the waiting period after being fully vaccinated for COVID to bypass the state’s pre-testing and quarantine requirement.

It’s been nearly two weeks since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its travel guidance to say fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without getting tested for the coronavirus or going into quarantine.

Gov. David Ige included the framework for vaccine-related travel exemptions in his April 9 emergency proclamation but still hasn’t approved a start date.

Green said Thursday that Hawaii is ready to embark on a Safe Travels Card.

“We have given 1 million doses of the vaccine to our people, and the Safe Travels program has safely allowed a combined 2.5 million residents and visitors to travel to Hawaii in six months without a surge of COVID. This combined success is illustrated by us having the lowest COVID-19 rates in the country and has brought 50,000 jobs back to life.”

The delay in implementing a vaccination exemption is worrisome to some who fear that the recent resurgence in demand for Hawaii could evaporate if other competitive destinations beat Hawaii to the vaccination exemption.

Hawaii hotels were hit harder than those in competitive destinations in 2020, according to Hawaii market report released Tuesday by commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE.

However, the CBRE report said, “Performance in Hawaii increased significantly toward the end of 2020 and into 2021 once the Safe Travels Hawaii program was rolled out, which allowed visitors with negative COVID-19 tests to bypass the quarantine period.”

Hawaii’s tourism rebound is unsettling for some, who would rather see tourism tempered until the state reaches herd immunity and proves that it can keep COVID-19 variants in check.

Meanwhile, the counties and state continue taking steps aimed at balancing the need for economic expansion against the need to stay safe.

On Thursday, Hawaii island lessened some of its travel requirements and began allowing travelers, who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and have fulfilled the waiting period, to bypass the county’s second-test requirement.

Hawaii island has had a second-testing requirement since October when the state debuted its travel entry program. But paying for the post-arrival testing and running it efficiently has been a challenge for Hawaii island, which will spend about $800,000 of its disaster funds on post-arrival testing in April.

Cyrus Johnasen, Hawaii island Mayor Mitch Roth’s spokesman, said the county intends to completely phase out its second-testing program on May 1 — when vaccines will have been more widely distributed and the state might have launched a vaccination exemption program for travelers.

Hawaii island’s post-arrival testing change comes as Maui Mayor Michael Victorino makes plans to implement a second test for trans-Pacific travelers, including residents who are returning from out of state. Details are still being finalized, but Victorino said Wednesday during a news conference that it could happen as soon as the end of April.

Kauai, which only rejoined Safe Travels Hawaii on April 5, has worked to incentivize a voluntary second test for travelers.

Oahu doesn’t require travelers to take a post-arrival test.

On Thursday the City and County of Honolulu and the National Kidney Foundation of Hawai‘i Consortium announced that they would offer free COVID-19 testing to Oahu’s hotel industry workers, who can register at oahucitypass.lumisight.com.

“With the influx of travelers to Oahu and as we enter the typically busy summer months, we want to do all we can to ensure our hotel workers are protected,” Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said in a statement. “Continuing to test, identify infection and prevent the spread of this virus is one of the best ways to get more residents back to work and our local economy back on its feet again.”

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