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Longtime travel advisor Calvin Kanoho has decided he will not sell any vacations to the Hawaiian Islands for the rest of this year.
“I don’t feel comfortable right now with Hawaii,” said Kanoho, owner of Protravel-affiliated Inner Circle Travel in San Francisco. “It’s kind of like the boy who cries wolf. The restart just keeps getting moved.”
Raised on Kauai, Kanoho visits the islands often and has been selling Aloha State vacations for more than a decade. But he says Hawaii Governor David Ige’s Aug. 18 announcement— when he postponed the start of the destination’s pre-travel COVID-19 test program to Oct. 1 — created a number of booking headaches.
“It’s just a very unsure situation,” Kanoho said. “And I’m still working on canceling some of my stuff on Maui.”
Ige first announced the Hawaii pretesting plan on June 24, outlining an approach that allows transpacific travelers with proof of a negative COVID-19 test — completed 72 hours before boarding a plane to the islands — to bypass the destination’s mandatory 14-day quarantine starting Aug. 1.
RELATED: Why the 72-Hour COVID-19 Test Requirement Is Causing Trip Cancellations
On July 13, Ige delayed the start of that pre-travel testing program to Sept. 1, citing concern over COVID-19 case surges in key mainland source markets, such as California and Texas.
In the weeks since, Hawaii has seen its own numbers spike, including a surge of nearly 6,000 new cases in the month of August alone, which has resulted in a second round of stay-at-home restrictions on Oahu. Through Sept. 2, 8,991 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 75 related deaths have been reported across the islands, according to Hawaii’s Department of Health.
“We will continue to monitor the conditions here in Hawaii as well as key markets on the mainland to determine the appropriate start date for the pre-travel testing program,” Ige said during an Aug. 18 press conference in Honolulu, noting the pretest plan “will not begin until Oct. 1 at the earliest.”
Rod Antone, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, says Ige’s most recent postponement was not big news in the islands.
“If you live in Hawaii, you weren’t very surprised,” Antone explained. “People here very much expected it to get pushed back.”
Antone says the 14-day mandatory quarantine for transpacific travelers arriving to Hawaii, enacted by Ige March 26 this year, has been “devastating” for Maui. And he points to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicating Maui’s 26.5% year-over-year plunge in employment through this June was the third worst in the nation, as evidence of just how difficult the tourism shut down has been for the Aloha State’s neighbor islands.
“We definitely need some revenue,” Antone said of Maui’s hotels. “And we need it soon.”
Toni Marie Davis, executive director of the Activities & Attractions Association of Hawaii, notes that while the island of Oahu — home to about 1 million people — has a more diverse collection of economic drivers, the less populated neighbor islands of Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island are far more dependent on tourism. But in a state where family is paramount and extraordinary respect is paid to “kupuna,” or grandparents, Davis says it is difficult to even discuss the economic impact of the governor’s ongoing mandatory 14-day quarantine for transpacific travelers.
“The comparison that gets drawn pretty quickly is you’re putting money over people’s lives,” she said.
According to data released Aug. 28 by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the total number of visitors arriving on domestic transpacific flights to the Aloha State plummeted 97% year over year in July. And Davis insists the current situation is particularly bleak for Hawaii activity and attraction businesses, especially those operating on the neighbor islands, where many are “holding on by a thin thread.”
“It’s devastating,” she said. “You’re talking about livelihoods of generations of families that have lived in Hawaii and built businesses, and it’s just going off a cliff — and it doesn’t have to.”
You’re talking about livelihoods of generations of families that have lived in Hawaii and built businesses, and it’s just going off a cliff — and it doesn’t have to.
The Hawaii Resort Bubble ConceptDavis and Antone both feel Hawaii could still safely reopen to transpacific visitors in some capacity, despite the destination’s recent surge in cases, and they point to COVID-19 pretesting restarts in Alaska and French Polynesia as successful models that could be modified to fit Hawaii.
RELATED: How French Polynesia Is Faring With COVID-19 One Month After Its Reopening
A resort bubble concept, where GPS geofence technology and a smartphone app could be employed to track visitors and restrict them to the property where they’re staying, has gained some traction across Hawaii in recent weeks. Antone says details about whether visitors would need to be tested or not to join bubbles is still being discussed, but Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island are all working on proposals.
“We need to start reversing what’s going on here,” Antone said. “I’m not saying resort bubbles are the answer, but I’m saying resort bubbles could be a great plan B until there is an answer.”
I’m not saying resort bubbles are the answer, but I’m saying resort bubbles could be a great plan B until there is an answer.
Gov. Ige said during his Aug. 18 press conference that resort bubbles are an idea that his administration is discussing with county leaders statewide as a possible option to return transpacific visitors more quickly to the islands.
“We would want to make sure the properties will take responsibility for the quarantine of the individuals who would be arriving,” Ige said. “So, we would minimize any opportunity for spreading the virus.”
Apple Leisure Group Vacations group president Ray Snisky says resort bubbles might make more sense for short-haul markets that visit Hawaii more frequently, but he feels the overall concept faces substantial challenges.
“Travelers coming to Hawaii are looking for a destination experience,” he said. “Exploring the islands and enjoying the beaches is a big part of that experience. This type of concept doesn’t provide for that overall dream vacation that most travelers are looking for and wouldn’t meet expectations.”
Snisky says Apple’s bookings to Hawaii have slowed in recent weeks, and the wholesaler has seen cancellations increase since Ige’s postponement announcement.
“We don’t anticipate much pickup for 2020,” Snisky said of Hawaii bookings. “When looking at 2021, we are still seeing softness into the market for the first half of the year with pickup starting in June.”
Anneke Marchese, a Hawaii specialist and owner of AM/FM Leisure & Adventure Travel in Bend, Ore., is telling clients, based on conversations she’s had with suppliers in the islands, that the destination just isn’t ready for visitors.
“Honestly, I’ve been talking with my clients about after March of 2021 — even looking at May vacations next year,” she said.
Marchese, who visits the islands often, says part of what makes Hawaii stand out is its people, culture, music and food, and she’s not comfortable selling the destination when it’s not at its best.
“If someone is envisioning a Hawaii vacation, or maybe even a soul-changing adventure there, it’s not going to be like it’s supposed to right now,” she said. “Even if you were to go, let’s say, Nov. 2, I can’t guarantee the Hawaii you’re envisioning is what you’re going to experience.”
On the other hand, Regina Tait, owner of the TravelCom Travel Agency in Huntington Beach, Calif., says she would not have any problem booking her clients to resort bubble stays in the Hawaiian Islands. Tait has been booking several trips in recent weeks to Mexico all-inclusive resorts, where guests are largely remaining on the property throughout their stay. And Tait, who has sold Hawaii vacations for 30 years, feels many of her clients would be intrigued by a similar option in the Aloha State.
“I think it’s a great idea,” she said of resort bubbles in Hawaii. “It’s a good alternative if that’s all we have for a while ... particularly with so many people not being able to go anywhere for so many months.”
While the Hawaii activities association chief Davis does acknowledge resort bubbles would not offer much relief for her membership, she is a proponent of the idea. But Davis, who lives on Maui, also suggests to expand bubbles beyond just resorts.
“I would like to see county bubbles,” she said, noting virus case counts on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island remain low.
“Most of the positive cases by far — I would say it’s 90%-plus — are on Oahu,” Davis said. “The islands [that are] being devastated to a much larger degree by the lack of visitors have very low numbers in comparison — super, super low. Why can’t we have people travel here directly who we test and then test after they arrive? Why can’t we be our own bubbles?”
The DetailsHawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau www.gohawaii.com