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Hawaii’s hotels continued improving last month

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Travel demand from North American markets is bolstering Hawaii’s travel industry so much that June hotel occupancy was closing in on pre-pandemic levels, even with the absence of international visitors.

However, hotel employment levels aren’t keeping up with occupancy gains. As of last week, only 62% of members in Hawaii’s largest hospitality workers union, Unite Here Local Five, had returned to the jobs they held before COVID-19 shut down travel to the islands.

Tennessee-based STR reported Wednesday that statewide June occupancy rose to 77%. The results were 7.1 percentage points below June 2019 when the pre-pandemic occupancy was 84.1%.

Demand for Hawaii hotels in June also helped achieve higher average daily room rates (ADR) and revenue per available room (RevPAR) than in 2019. RevPAR is considered by many in the hotel industry as the key performance measure, as it’s the rate that a room rents for regardless of occupancy status.

Hawaii has the most travel restrictions of any U.S. state but so far that hasn’t dampened the summer swell of domestic travelers.

It bodes well for Hawaii’s tourism industry that June gains came although most passengers arriving from out of state still needed a negative COVID-19 test result from a “trusted testing partner” to bypass the state’s 10-day travel quarantine. Hawaii didn’t even begin offering a vaccination exemption for domestic travelers until July 8.

However, June results were mixed across the islands.

Maui’s occupancy in June was just a little behind the same month in 2019; however, ADR and RevPAR were up significantly. Kauai and Hawaii island were doing better in all performance categories last month versus June 2019.

Oahu hotels, which are more dependent on international travelers, in June were still down across all hotel performance categories.

Right now, Hawaii is benefiting from the fact that access to many other long- haul destinations is not open or is not as convenient, according to Keith Vieria, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting.

Vieira said Hawaii’s tourism recovery is still pretty fragile given that it’s entirely dependent on domestic travelers and cannot rely on any offset from international travelers. It remains to be seen if current demand for Hawaii holds once more long-haul destinations drop restrictions and reopen to visitors.

Vieira said the sluggish return of international travel, which is normally 25% of Hawaii’s market, along with the group market, which makes up 17% to 19% of the market, continues to hamper recovery for some hospitality members. Some hotels on Oahu have been particularly hard hit as international travelers made up about 50% of the island’s market prior to the pandemic, he said.

Gov. David Ige has not said when a vaccination exemption would be offered for international travelers. However, he has indicated that Safe Travels would sunset once 70% of the local population is vaccinated. Given that children under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated, the benchmark is really 82% of everyone eligible to be vaccinated in Hawaii.

The latest Department of Health data shows vaccinations at just over 59% of the total population.

“I don’t think the current situation is sustainable,” Vieira said.

Among other challenges, the state is also grappling with increasing pushback from residents who find the return of so many travelers in the midst of the pandemic untenable. There also has been increased dissatisfaction from visitors, who say COVID-era restrictions and supply chain challenges are marring their experience.

Local 5 spokesman Bryant de Venecia worries that workers aren’t sharing in the recovery. De Venecia said the union is planning a sign-waving action Friday in Waikiki to draw attention to the plight of workers.

“We’ve been seeing about 2% growth in returning workers every month starting in May, but that’s really slow compared to the influx of visitors,” he said, adding that approximately 3,420 hospitality workers out of the 9,000 the union represents still haven’t returned to work.

Purie Ibalio, a room attendant at The Modern Honolulu, said changes such as the elimination of daily room cleaning have contributed to job cuts and increased workloads. She estimates that it now takes an average of two hours to clean a room after a guest checks out as opposed to 45 minutes before the pandemic, when rooms were cleaned during a guest’s stay.

“It’s so dirty and disgusting when you enter the room, sometimes you don’t even know where to start,” Ibalio said.

She said customers yell at workers more now too.

“They know before they check in that there’s no daily service. But sometimes we get yelled at because they want us to clean the rooms,” Ibalio said.

Vieira said that during the pandemic, fewer guests have wanted room service, valet service or daily room cleaning, which has eliminated some jobs. However, he said, it’s common to see hotels suffering from worker shortages in other departments.

“We can’t find enough workers to open all the restaurants,” he said. “There are hotels with 60 to 100 openings. A fair amount of people have decided not to come back. We think that’s going to continue until the benefits diminish.”

De Venecia said in his experience most furloughed workers want to return to work.

“A majority of our members hate being unemployed,” he said. “They can’t get sick, they can’t go to the dentist, they can’t take care of their physical needs.”

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