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Interisland travel vaccine exemptions commence

Traveling between the Hawaiian Islands just got easier for people who have been vaccinated in Hawaii, but a major bump in travel demand isn’t likely to come until the entry process for trans-Pacific travelers becomes less complicated.

Nearly 3.2 million travelers, almost 2.4 million of them visitors, already have been screened by Safe Travels Hawaii since the Oct. 15 start of the state’s travel entry program. More than 2.9 million travelers were able to skip the state’s travel quarantine through testing or other means.

As of Monday only 760,174 of the travelers to come through Safe Travels Hawaii were Hawaii residents. Part of the reason might be that Hawaii residents worry about COVID-19 more than residents in any other state, as a new SafeWise survey showed. Another explanation is that COVID testing tends to be expensive, with most tests ranging from $150 to $300 per person. Also, navigating the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 travel requirements, which differ across islands, is a lot of work — especially for a short-haul trip.

The start Tuesday of an interisland vaccine exemption, for travelers who were fully vaccinated in Hawaii, isn’t expected to open the tourism floodgates, but it does remove some of the hoops for kamaaina travelers.

Duke Ah Moo, Hilton vice president and commercial director for Hawaii and French Polynesia, said his personal experience in flying from Honolulu to Kona on Tuesday was that it was easy.

“Upon deplaning in Kona, I waited in line for about 10 minutes to show my QR code. I had uploaded an image of my COVID-19 vaccination card to the Safe Travels website, so the attendant was able to pull it up on her mobile device after scanning my QR code. She reviewed the image carefully, presumably to verify the dates and authenticity, and then told me that I was free to exit,” Ah Moo said. “I witnessed other travelers who showed their physical vaccination card, possibly because they had not uploaded it to the site.”

Oren Masserman, who arrived Tuesday on Oahu, didn’t have a travel quarantine to bypass, but the musician said that he is looking forward to an easier reentry upon his return to Maui.

“I traveled one time during the pandemic. I went to Colorado, and I had to take a COVID test and that was kind of stressful, so this whole vaccination exemption is kind of nice for traveling interisland,” Masserman said.

Masserman said he thinks “more mainlanders would come if they were offered a vaccination exemption,” but said he’s not sure that it will encourage more Hawaii residents to travel or get vaccinated.

“I would hope more locals start traveling interisland because it definitely makes it easier, but I think that there’s still a huge chunk of people who are skeptical (of the COVID vaccine) and waiting to see if the world is going to grow a third eyeball,” he said.

Members of Hawaii’s visitor industry say they are hoping that additional kamaaina travelers will build upon spring and summer travel demand. And, if the interisland pilot goes smoothly, they anticipate it will pave the way for the state to offer vaccination exemptions to trans-Pacific travelers.

Ben Rafter, Springboard Hospitality president and CEO, said the company already had been seeing a gradual increase in kamaaina business and leisure travelers since some of the COVID-19 tier restrictions loosened.

“Even before this, traffic was increasing fairly steadily. I think this will help push it another 5% or 10%. But it won’t be a 50% increase overnight, if only because it’s been gradually increasing anyway,” Rafter said.

He said the latest tweak to Safe Travels is “a great first step” that eventually should pave the way back for travelers from anywhere in the world.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green has championed expanding vaccination exemptions more broadly. But Green doesn’t expect Gov. David Ige’s leadership team to consider allowing fully vaccinated domestic trans-Pacific travelers to bypass the quarantine until after the Fourth of July weekend, and after Labor Day for international travelers.

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said, “This is our preseason game. The major priority is to show that the visitor industry is benefiting local residents. We’re excited that people can see their families again.”

Hannemann said he’s optimistic that once confidence builds in the system, Ige’s team will offer similar exemptions to trans-Pacific travelers.

“The kamaaina market is not enough for a full recovery,” he said.

Still, more kamaaina traffic is a blessing, said Lynette Eastman, general manager of The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club in Waikiki.

“We’ve been running at 70% occupancy since July, and we’re definitely excited that vaccinated kamaaina can now travel interisland without a fuss,” Eastman said. “We have over 80% occupancy on the books for June, July and August, and kamaaina travelers are becoming a larger share of the pie.”

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