Hawaii’s dreams of cashing in on the first Olympic surfing competition and seeing a quicker Japan tourism rebound were “blown out” again Monday when U.S. health officials and the State Department warned Americans against travel to Japan.
“Travelers should avoid all travel to Japan,” the Atlanta- based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new COVID-19 update. “Because of the current situation in Japan even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants and should avoid all travel to Japan.”
The State Department’s warning, which followed the CDC alert, was more blunt. “Do not travel to Japan due to COVID-19,” it said in the announcement, which raised the department’s travel alert from Level 3 — Reconsider travel — to Level 4 — Do not travel. The previous alert was issued April 21.
The twin alerts, which were motivated by a surge of coronavirus cases in Japan, come as Japan is preparing to host the Olympics in two months. They do not directly affect travel to Hawaii from Japanese visitors. However, they create more uncertainty about when Hawaii’s largest international market will return.
In 2019 the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that more than 1.5 million visitors from Japan visited Hawaii and contributed nearly $2.2 billion in visitor spending. Last year COVID caused arrivals by air from Japan to plummet more than 81% to 297,243, and HTA did not have enough data to calculate spending.
The state’s tourism economy will not make a full recovery until Japan tourism comes back, especially on Oahu, where international arrivals made up about 46% of the pre-pandemic market.
The alerts don’t ban U.S. citizens from visiting the country, but they could have an impact on insurance rates for travelers and might factor into decisions by Olympic athletes and spectators on whether to compete in or attend the Games, which are due to start in July.
Japan already had made a decision not to allow international spectators at the games. It’s unclear whether Japan’s coronavirus worries will drop domestic attendance, which could exacerbate Japan’s economic challenges.
Any shocks to Japan’s economy would be felt in Hawaii, especially on Oahu, where international arrivals made up about 46% of pre- pandemic tourism.
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee said it still anticipates that American athletes will be able to safely compete at the Tokyo Games.
“We feel confident that the current mitigation practices in place for athletes and staff by both the USOPC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee, coupled with the testing before travel, on arrival in Japan, and during Games time, will allow for safe participation of Team USA athletes this summer,” the committee said Monday in a statement.
Even so, the high hopes that Hawaii tourism and government officials once had for riding the wave of publicity surrounding the first Olympic surfing competition have dampened.
Hawaii officials started working on marketing partnerships back in in 2016 when surfing was elevated to an Olympic sport. HTA announced a $100,000 partnership with the World Surf League in 2019 on the same day that local surfer John John Florence qualified for a spot on the U.S. men’s Olympic surfing team. The news only added to the jubilation that had emerged earlier in the month when local surfer Carissa Moore had secured a spot on the U.S. women’s Olympic surfing team.
News of the warnings prompted state Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Kalihi-Salt Lake- Aliamanu), who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism, to advise HTA President and CEO John De Fries to curb Japan marketing.
“It’s another nail in the coffin,” Wakai said. “Since October they have wasted $1.6 million on Hawaii Tourism Japan. I told them not to waste any more of their precious marketing dollars until the market rebounds in the fall.”
The warning, but more so the heightened cases in Japan, could postpone the anticipated recovery of the Japan market in Hawaii. Throughout the pandemic Hawaii has seen travel demand ebb and flow along with coronavirus fears and government regulations.
Another unknown is what impact U.S. warnings might have on the Japanese government’s own travel policies, which are so strict that they already have interfered with recovery of Japan tourism in Hawaii.
Hawaii’s efforts to form a travel bubble with Japan fizzled earlier in the pandemic as the U.S. struggled to manage its COVID infections. Hawaii government leaders announced in July that the state was on an exclusive list of 12 countries and regions that Japanese leaders were considering for the resumption of safe international travel.
The state added Japan to its Safe Travels program in November, but restrictions in Japan have kept arrivals low. The Japanese government still requires proof of a negative PCR test for all entry into Japan. Additionally, it requires a 14-day quarantine for all returning travelers — even Japanese nationals.
Only 2,910 visitors from Japan visited Hawaii during the first quarter, a 99% drop from the first quarter of 2020, which was only partially affected by coronavirus.
Eric Takahata, managing director of Hawaii Tourism Japan, said he doesn’t expect the latest U.S. travel advisories to have much impact on the Japan market, which already had experienced challenges in Hawaii.
“This won’t affect our outlook; it’s for Americans traveling to Japan,” Takahata said. “When you look at it from a Japanese perspective, there’s no change. They are willing to do Safe Travels in the current format, but it’s the travel restrictions, mainly the 14-day quarantine on the backside, that are a deterrent.”
Takahata said Japanese tourism isn’t expected to start returning to Hawaii until the fourth quarter, when infections decrease and vaccinations increase.
“We expect arrivals to be more than now, but how much we still don’t know,” he said.
Takahata said HTJ has reduced staff to nine from 15 and is on a fixed-cost budget. But marketing dollars will need to be spent starting by July if the state hopes to realize the anticipated fall gains, he said.
Hawaii companies with Japan tourism interests previously had appealed to HTA’s standing marketing committee not to make further cuts to its Japan marketing budget, which already had dropped to $4.5 million from $9 million.
Some of Hawaii’s outlook for Japan tourism will ride on how well the Olympics go and how well Japan manages this latest surge.
Japan earlier Monday mobilized military doctors and nurses to give shots to older adults in two major cities, as the government tried desperately to accelerate its vaccination rollout and curb coronavirus infections before it hosts the Olympics. That move came amid growing calls for the Games to be canceled.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the Olympics in Tokyo beginning July 23, after a one-year delay, and has made an ambitious pledge to finish vaccinating the country’s 36 million seniors by the end of July.
Japan has recorded just over 12,000 COVID-19 deaths — good by global standards but poor in Asia — but Tokyo, Osaka and several other areas are under a state of emergency until Monday that is likely to be extended.
There is fear of new variants spreading, with only a tiny percentage of the Japanese — estimated at 2% to 4% — vaccinated.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.