Business

Hawai‘i’s Return to Tourism: Just How Realistic is the Plan?

September 22, 2020, 2:04 PM HST
* Updated September 22, 2:22 PM
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Fairmont Orchid File photo.

The Big Island’s tourism industry expected to hear news from Gov. David Ige last week that the state had a plan to reopen to tourism by mid-October. Expectations as to how effective that plan may prove to be are harder to define.

The state announced its intent to launch a pre-travel testing program on Oct. 15, which will allow travelers to earn exemption from quarantine with proof of a certified negative coronavirus test conducted within 72 hours of travel.

By allowing for freedom of movement and some relative level of safety, despite passenger arrivals from all over the United States (and eventually the world) amid a global pandemic, the program could theoretically begin to bring back the lifeblood of Hawai‘i’s economy.

“It’s such an interesting time and dance to watch how this is happening. I think Governor Ige did hear loud and clear from members of the industry that we can’t continue to wait indefinitely,” said Stephanie Donoho, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association. “While I appreciate the governor’s announcement, I think a lot of my members are still waiting on the details of that plan. They want to see hard, actionable evidence.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said all arriving passengers, adults and children, will be required to take a test prior to landing in Hawai‘i. If the results are not available by the time they get to the state, those travelers will be required to quarantine until results are returned.

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The state is contracting CVS and Kaiser Permanente to provide testing for mainland travelers. Green said visitors will pay out of pocket for the test, which is estimated at a price of $139.

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Beyond those specifics, however, details remain vague. What about people who don’t live in a state where Kaiser or CVS are prominent, or even present? South Dakota for instance, has only three CVS locations statewide. The same is true for Idaho. Kaiser only serves portions of eight US states and the District of Columbia, according to its website.

“The closest CVS is four hours away,” said Jody, a prospective Hawai‘i traveler from Iowa. “My doctor’s office doesn’t do testing. The local hospital doesn’t do rapid testing. Mobile Test Iowa doesn’t do rapid testing for asymptomatic people.”

“I think the governor’s idea is just throwing a bone to make it look like he’s going to get travelers back, not really trying,” she continued. “If it is as difficult for everyone as it is for me, no one will come back.”

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Donoho said there are no concrete projections from anywhere yet on how many travelers the state, or individual islands, should expect assuming the governor’s pre-testing plan is effective to any meaningful degree. The Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau is coordinating with destination analysts, polling visitors in primary markets to gauge capacity and desire for travel, and monitoring the booking pace of various lodging options across the state, but hard numbers remain elusive.

Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa and Keauhou Bay. Courtesy image.

October tended to be a lighter travel month to Hawai‘i pre-pandemic, Donoho said, which could work in favor of the state’s plan by giving it a bit more time to be developed and adjusted before significant travel demand returns.

Donoho said several hotels and resorts will likely opt to reopen their doors in November for the festive season rather than immediately on Oct. 15.

“We have some loyal people who have made reservations during that time forever. It’s multigenerational and they bring their families,” she said. “As long as Hawai‘i can show that a pre-travel testing program is in place, we’ll see those die-hards who want to come.”

“If we find the arrangements with CVS and Kaiser aren’t as easy … that might make it more challenging. The airline experience people have, that might make it more challenging. It’s a wait-and-see, hopeful optimism. But I still wouldn’t expect half of the typical arrivals for the festive season.”

Airlines have consolidated flights to Hawai‘i, meaning that some formerly direct flights will now be rerouted through other mainland airports and include layovers, which increases travel time and COVID risk.

Ben Rafter, of Hawai‘i OLS Hotels, said last week during a Honolulu Civil Beat deep-dive presentation into the reopening of tourism that he’s expecting at least 1,000 restaurant closures statewide. He added that it will take between 18–30 months for tourism-reliant industries to feel like they’re in recovery.

Rafter further projected that visitor arrivals and the tourism industry in general next year will look more like 2009, following essentially a decade of record-setting arrival numbers.

“Things will open in stages depending on the number of people coming,” Donoho said. “Not all employees will come back all at once. Some of them, their functionality is around a particular market, banquet services and convention activites, direct ocean services, or spa-related services. They might not all come back at one time because we won’t yet have the volume. Restaurants may be phased in terms of reopening. Can margins be met, and (can we justify opening) a second one?”

Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hualalai Resort.

Some resorts will consider other factors beyond demand. The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, for instance, used the months-long lull in travel to initiate renovations. Multiple employees in different departments at Four Seasons communicated to Big Island Now that the resort told them to expect a return to work in December.

The logistics of reopening a large, tourism-based operation during a pandemic are also significant and could cause established timelines to fluctuate.

Changes are happening all over the Kohala Coast to make environments safer. Most resorts are suspending valet services, implementing alternative cleaning systems, changing room security to keyless entry via a smartphone, sealing rooms, and removing commonly touched items like magazines.

Plastic layers will be added to television remote controls, for instance. After visitors check out, the plastic will be removed and replaced, with the remote being cleaned in the interim.

Off-Resort Business

While some industries have proven capable of navigating the COVID pandemic — real estate and alcohol sales, for example, are each doing quite well — many other Big Island businesses have found a need for innovation to remain afloat, as they wait intently for the silhouettes of tourists to return and darken their doors.

Wendy Laros, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, said some companies have moved more products online. Others have applied for grants through county programs. CARES Act funding went to the Small Business Administration and directly to businesses, but it also went to the state and its counties. Some of that money has taken longer to distribute and helped companies remain afloat after paycheck protection program (PPP) loans and economic injury disaster loans dried up.

Alii Drive. PC: Google Images

Jack’s Diving Locker, for one, applied for a county grant along with the NAKOA Foundation to provide scholarships to its youth dive camps. It’s a service that’s been provided for decades, now being employed as an innovative pivot to remain in business despite the demand for dive tours dipping.

Some tour companies had to suspend operations but reopened with the lifting of the interisland travel quarantine in June and the return of the kama‘aina economy. However, when that quarantine was reinstituted following surging cases on O‘ahu, demand fell off again.

“The news was big, to know we have a pre-travel testing program,” Laros said of Ige’s announcement last week. “We are very hopeful.”

“(Business) probably will ramp up slowly. Long-time and loyal customers, people who come every year, stay at this resort or go on that tour, (businesses) are hearing from them about a pent up demand.”

Hawai‘i Tourism Authority President and CEO John DeFries spoke with the Chamber’s economic development committee last week. During that meeting, he expressed his opinion that tourism will probably take a few years to truly ramp back up.

Laros said visitor arrivals are likely remain significantly reduced until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available. In the meantime, residents and visitors alike must take responsibility if there is to be a chance for any meaningful economic recovery.

“We are all very hopeful but at the same time, these plans are in place based on the behavior of the general public,” Laros said. “We need to remember the personal responsibility each person has to have — to wash their hands, to wear a mask, and to keep six feet apart. If people decide not to adhere to these extremely important guidelines, the situation may change. The virus is the economy, so people need to try to do their part.”

“We will welcome responsible travelers.”

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