You wouldn’t know that Hawaii tourism is supposed to be shut down by all the specials in the market, including great kamaaina deals, which have been absent for most of the summer travel surge.
Even after Gov. David Ige took the step a week ago of telling visitors to stay home at least through October, some airlines were actively promoting $99 fares to Hawaii. Travel sellers are offering fall booking incentives like $100 off, and online travel agencies are showing discounts in the 15% to 35% range.
There are sales galore on Hotels.com for the popular Labor Day travel period, where visitors can find a rare $100 hotel room in Waikiki. Hotels, especially chains with large room counts, also are advertising kamaaina or locals-only specials.
The deals are sending a clear message that it’s not March 2020 — the last time that Ige asked visitors to stay home. In early 2020 there wasn’t a vaccination to control the spread of the virus, and all travelers coming to Hawaii were subject to a lengthy quarantine, which the visitor industry broadly supported.
Hawaii’s visitor industry leaders say they understand the need to reduce Hawaii’s COVID-19 counts. State Department of Health officials reported Sunday that there were two new coronavirus-related deaths and 1,678 infections, a record high.
However, some are stumped by Ige’s decision to collapse travel, when according to DOH records, travel has accounted for only about 7% of cases since May 26.
Besides, they say, the absence of a mandate with penalties for violators doesn’t give travel companies adequate tools to stop tourists from coming, especially when the CDC has said domestic travel is safe for U.S. travelers who are vaccinated. It also doesn’t give them or the state recourse to disrupt business.
Still, Ige’s message that now is not a good time to visit Hawaii has caused conscientious travelers to rethink their plans and, in many cases, cancel them.
California visitor Chris Leach said he and his wife, Adrianne Denning, chose to vacation on Oahu in part because they felt it was a safe place to visit with their 13-month-old daughter, Magnolia.
“I think it was a fair message because if we were in California we would have checked that, and we would have listened and stayed,” Leach said. “I hope that at least in the immediate term people listen to it and stop traveling. The way that we view this is that if we get sick, we are taking the bed from someone that is local and may need it.”
Keith Vieira, principal of KV and Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said the breadth of Ige’s request is problematic.
“What you would hate would be people who have been vaccinated saying, ‘Well, the governor is asking us not to go,’” Vieira said. “And, people who haven’t been vaccinated saying, ‘Hey, there’s no mandate. Let’s go.’”
Vieira said that could create a boomerang effect that increases the likelihood of attracting “less desirable” visitors, even while experiencing declining revenues.
Since his announcement, Ige has met with members of Hawaii’s visitor industry, including tourism-related businesses and community organizations, labor, chambers of commerce, airlines and hotel representatives.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said the group has “received reports from our industry partners and hotels that indicate cancellations totaling millions of dollars, and end-of-year forecasts that now have to be adjusted.”
Fred Atkins, general partner at Kilohana Kauai, said, “We have never had the kind of (luau) cancellations that we had (Wednesday).”
Atkins, who is also an Hawaii Tourism Authority board member, said he spent most of Wednesday talking to hoteliers and asset managers, who reported a “staggering amount of cancellations within 24 hours.”
“One resort had over $1.5 million (in cancellations), another had $1 million, another had $500,000,” he said.
Katy Britzmann, director of sales and marketing at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, said, “We have received a significant amount of group and leisure cancellations through October.”
“The groups have almost all cited that the governor’s announcement is their reason for cancellation,” Britzmann said. “Leisure cancellations are not specifically tracked, but we assume that it is both the governor’s announcement as well as the surge in COVID across the country.”
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said Ige’s message caused an immediate drop in business.
One airline executive said cancellations to Hawaii are now outpacing their bookings for September and October, and that’s created price fare wars.
Lynette Eastman, general manager of the Waikiki Surfjack & Swim Club, said another challenge is that the state has added uncertainty at a time when fall seasonality and rising COVID-19 cases already had softened the market.
Eastman said price drops were occurring before Ige’s announcement; now more are expected. Businesses who don’t nimbly respond to the market risk are getting eaten by the competition, who won’t face repercussions if they choose not to participate in Ige’s latest request to collapse Hawaii’s tourist economy.
Richards said getting voluntary cooperation is tough without a mandate.
“All of the companies, including us, we’ve suffered through 18 months of the COVID, and we are trying to get our businesses back on track — so if you don’t want people to come to Hawaii, you need to lock the state down,” he said.
However, Richards and other members of Hawaii’s visitor industry say they hope the state would consider other options first.
Hannemann said the visitor industry group that met with Ige “offered alternatives that would strike a balance between maintaining public health and sustaining our still fragile economic recovery.”
“Our focus remains on welcoming responsible and respectful visitors to our state as opposed to the extractive and opportunistic traveler who will not help in achieving a sustainable and resilient economic recovery,” he said.
Eastman said she would support requiring a pre-test for all travelers, even those who have been vaccinated.
“A pre-test is less confusing for travelers,” she said.
Britzmann said the Hyatt “has supported and will continue to support any decisions made on the state and county level in terms of pre-testing.”
“We continue to campaign for increasing the vaccination effort throughout the island, along with associate COVID testing on property twice weekly,” she said.
Leach said the state and county might also consider temporarily banning indoor dining, a step that some California cities have taken.