The summer surge in visitors that revved up Hawaii’s tourism industry rebound was already slowing due to fall seasonality and growing uncertainty about the safety of travel as COVID-19 cases surge across the country.
Now the recovery is facing new speed bumps.
Gov. David Ige on Monday asked residents and visitors alike to limit travel to Hawaii to essential business activities only at least through the end of October. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi also suspended large gatherings on Oahu for four weeks beginning Wednesday.
“It is a risky time to be traveling right now. We do know that it is not a good time to travel to the islands,” Ige said Monday during a news conference.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority and its marketing contractor, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, plan to discourage travel.
John De Fries, president and CEO of HTA, said, “Our community, residents and the visitor industry are responsible for working together to address this crisis. As such, we are strongly advising visitors that now is not the right time to travel, and they should postpone their trips through the end of October.”
HVCB Chief Marketing Officer Jay Talwar said the organization will share De Fries’ message with the entire industry and does not have “any sales-oriented messaging asking people to visit Hawaii in the market.”
Other members of Hawaii’s visitor industry say they are generally supportive of Blangiardi’s decision to limit large gatherings, but less so of Ige’s request, which was not backed by an order.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said Ige’s request is confusing since state rules still allow for travel to Hawaii.
“I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do. I’ve got thousands of people booked to come between now and 2022, and I’m certainly not going to contact them and say, ‘Don’t go,’” Richards said.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said he does not view Ige’s request as an executive order or emergency proclamation.
“I think there’s some wiggle room here to try to have some meaningful dialogue that will offer, hopefully, some solutions that will help him achieve the same ends short of basically telling visitors, ‘Do not come to Hawaii,’” Hannemann said.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said, “We continue to believe that the single most valuable measure to address this crisis is increasing the vaccination rate in our community, which is why we have announced our intent to require our employees to be vaccinated.”
Sean Dee, Outrigger Hospitality Group executive vice president and chief commercial officer, and Ben Rafter, president and CEO of Springboard Hospitality, said they support Blangiardi’s decision to restrict large social gatherings and events. But the longtime hospitality executives said they do not favor Ige’s latest approach.
Dee said, “We were obviously disappointed to hear Governor Ige’s remarks today as we’re not aware of any COVID-19 spread-related issues tied to tourism. In fact, all the data suggests that Safe Travels has been the most effective program of its kind in the country and allowed us to get back to work and bring jobs back to our Hawaii economy safely.”
Rafter, who serves on the HTA board, said telling people not to come to Hawaii could have long-term impacts. Instead, he said, the focus should be on telling people, “Please get vaccinated, please be responsible, please wear a mask and please limit your group settings, especially if you are not vaccinated.”