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Editorial: Restrictions ease; brace for tourists

When the state launched its Safe Travels program in mid-October — after seven months of tourism lockdown — it opened the door for tourists who tested negative for COVID-19 infection 72 hours before arrival to bypass Hawaii’s strict two-week quarantine.

Then and now, Hawaii’s pandemic travel restrictions have ranked among the nation’s most rigid and cumbersome. However, due to our longstanding run among states with the lowest counts of coronavirus cases, Hawaii is also among the top destinations “where people feel safe,” a Safe Travels administrator noted this week.

The welcome upshot is that while not fully recovered, the tourism industry here is continuing to rebound — with various upsurges and glitches along the way. Shortly after more than 10,000 travelers arrived on the Oct. 15 launch of the pre-travel testing program, daily arrivals fell to the 2,000-4,000 range that the industry had expected.

Now, the state is bracing for another arrivals spike — one that appears on track to match or exceed some prepandemic headcounts — thanks to the major easing of Hawaii travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers from the U.S. mainland, which took effect Thursday. But industry observers expect any dramatic increase will also be somewhat short-lived as more international destinations reopen and compete for tourists.

Hawaii got a glimpse of how this bustling summer could unfold, in advance of the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Last week, on the last day of June, there were 33,760 trans-Pacific traveler screenings statewide. Last year on June 30, due to COVID-19 restrictions and related concerns, a mere 436 travelers touched down here.

The return to tallies near prepandemic levels — along with the return of overtourism worries — is surely jarring to residents who enjoyed the empty roads, hiking trails and refreshed marine environments that accompanied the tourism pause. For many residents, tourism fatigue is virtually unavoidable, given several years of rising annual counts that topped out in 2019 with upwards of 10 million visitors.

Given the financial challenges ahead tied to maintenance and environmental protection at popular beach areas, parks and heavily traveled trails, state and county leaders must fast-track establishing sites where visitor fees could be collected to help reduce impact on natural resources and related infrastructure.

Also, it’s time for all to employ ample patience and aloha-spirit calm as pent-up travel demand feeds our still-hungry economy. At airports, local and federal personnel need to work in tandem with airlines as well as ground transportation operators to ensure smooth flow of arriving and departing travelers. Beyond inconvenience, crowded airports also increase risk of coronavirus transmission.

Last week, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, along with private-sector partners, took a much-needed step toward mitigating the rental car shortage problem on Maui by launching a new shuttle service from Kahului to West Maui and Wailea. Kauai County kicked off a pilot shuttle program between Lihue Airport and resort areas in early June. Throughout the state, plans should be in place for efficient public-health protocols to avoid excessively long lines.

For fully vaccinated travelers, the now-lifted Safe Travels testing requirement represents a liberating milestone as Hawaii nearly reaches a statewide full vaccination rate of 60%. Also linked to that is Oahu’s move on Thursday to Tier 5, the final tier in the city’s framework for fully reopening various businesses, activities and venues. Among other gains, it allows increased seating capacities in restaurants and larger social gatherings.

Even so, the coronavirus threat lingers on. And with the delta variant rising — causing countries such as Japan to reimpose a strict state of emergency — Hawaii has wisely set its bar higher, at 70%, before all travel restrictions and other constraints are lifted.

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