For travel advisor Anneke Marchese, recent changes to Hawaii’s Safe Travels pretest program wiped out all client business to the Aloha State for the rest of this year and 2021.
“Kauai opting out of the pretest program had a huge, huge impact,” said Marchese, a longtime Hawaii specialist and owner of AM/FM Leisure & Adventure Travel in Bend, Ore. “I lost huge bookings.”
As of Dec. 2, anyone traveling to Kauai was required to quarantine for 14 days. And effective Nov. 24, trans-Pacific visitors participating in the Safe Travels pretest program must depart for the islands with proof in hand of a negative COVID-19 test — taken no later than 72 hours before the final leg of their journey — to avoid quarantine. Travelers were initially allowed to show up without those pretest results but could provide proof of a negative test after arriving in Hawaii to bypass quarantine.
Kauai opting out of the pretest program had a huge, huge impact.
“Prior to that change, most people were willing to ride it out and travel to Hawaii,” Marchese said.
Once her clients found out that they would be forced to quarantine if their COVID-19 test results are not available before their final leg, they decided it was not worth the risk.
“So, they’ve pivoted to places like Mexico, where that isn’t a hurdle,” Marchese said.
Further change came Wednesday night this week, however, when Hawaii Governor David Ige signed an order reducing the state’s mandatory quarantine period from 14 to 10 days for trans-Pacific travelers and those making trips between islands. The shorter mandatory quarantine period begins today (Dec. 17), but travelers who meet the requirements of the state’s Safe Travels pretest program remain exempt.
“A 10-day self-quarantine period allows us to control the spread of COVID-19 in the community while balancing the need to address the mental and emotional health issues caused by isolation, to improve compliance, and to lessen the economic hardship for those unable to return to work,” Ige said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to assess the situation and make decisions based on evidence and the advice of our health experts.”
A 10-day self-quarantine period allows us to control the spread of COVID-19 in the community while balancing the need to address the mental and emotional health issues caused by isolation, to improve compliance, and to lessen the economic hardship for those unable to return to work.
Since Kauai opted out and the change in when Hawaii visitors must produce negative pretest results went into effect, Marchese said she has either rebooked her clients with Hawaii vacation plans to other destinations or postponed their vacations indefinitely. One family she had booked to Kauai in February next year has decided they now don’t feel comfortable traveling to the Garden Isle until 2022.
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Marchese said she understands why Kauai opted out, noting the increase in travel-related cases the island has seen since the Oct. 15 Safe Travels program launch. But she described the lengthy quarantine as a “dealbreaker” for her clients and said mandating that folks have proof in hand of a negative COVID-19 test taken at most 72 hours prior to the final leg of their trip has also been an understandable turnoff for her clients.
“That’s a lot of risk,” Marchese said. “If you don’t have that test result, you’ve potentially lost out on two weeks of your time or all of the money you just put out for flights and vacation.”
Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, the practicing emergency room physician who headed up development of the destination’s Safe Travels program, said he understands elements of the pretest requirement process “give some people heartburn, and I’m incredibly sympathetic, but we’re in a global pandemic and we’re really trying to be safe.”
Green also believes Hawaii’s pretest program is working, and he noted that since its launch on Oct. 15, Safe Travels has screened nearly 400,000 Hawaii visitors.
“And we’ve kept our statewide COVID-19 numbers flat or decreasing,” Green added. “Our hospitalizations are down a full 50% since Safe Travels started.”
This is a reflection of what we thought, which is when you weed out positive cases in large numbers by doing a pretest, it’s not perfect but it helps, and you get very low travel rates.
Through Dec. 13, 19,424 confirmed COVID-19 cases and a total of 274 related deaths have been reported across Hawaii since the start of the pandemic, according to the state’s Department of Health. And Green said that as of Nov. 30, just 299 confirmed COVID-19 cases had been reported among Safe Travels participants.
“This is a reflection of what we thought, which is when you weed out positive cases in large numbers by doing a pretest, it’s not perfect but it helps, and you get very low travel rates,” Green said.
The Lt. Gov. did say Hawaii officials have been paying close attention to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases on the U.S. mainland, and he mentioned the resulting strain on testing capacity in parts of the country, where he said it would be more difficult for some travelers to meet Hawaii’s 72-hour pretest requirements.
Green also indicated that new safer-at-home restrictions in California — by far Hawaii’s largest source market — would substantially reduce tourism business in the islands over the traditional peak December holiday period.
But Green insisted there were no plans to suspend Hawaii’s pretest program, and he didn’t expect any of the Aloha State’s other islands — including Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island — to follow Kauai out of the program.
“There’s no expectation that anyone else will opt out,” Green said. “In fact, I would expect, over time, Kauai will opt back in.”
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said the wholesaler has seen Hawaii cancellations increase significantly in recent weeks for trips planned during the December holiday period and the first quarter of next year. And Pleasant cancelled 140 customers’ vacations to Kauai after the Garden Isle opted out of the state’s pretest program Dec. 2, according to Richards, who noted travelers have been hesitant to rebook.
“Here’s a typical question we’re hearing: ‘So Kauai is opting out? Are Maui and Oahu going to do that, too?’” he said. “We’ve had people that have changed their Hawaii trip four times, and they’re just fed up.”
Here’s a typical question we’re hearing: ‘So Kauai is opting out? Are Maui and Oahu going to do that, too?’
Meanwhile, Pleasant’s business elsewhere is faring far better.
“We have some destinations that are even with or slightly ahead of 2019,” Richards said. “Mexico, for example, is doing very well. Tahiti is doing very well.”
Mexico’s lack of any pretest requirements has certainly helped the destination’s tourism industry, Richards said, but he noted Pleasant’s business to French Polynesia has also been strong, due in no small part to the destination’s decision to reopen to visitors July 15 with a clear pre-arrival and post-arrival testing protocol and not to deviate from those requirements since.
“The problem you have with the state of Hawaii is you have multiple voices in the market,” Richards said. “You have the governor, and then you have all these island mayors, so there are a lot of different voices, and it’s very difficult for travelers to know what’s going to happen because it’s changing so quickly.”
One result of the varied island voices and restrictions has been that Pleasant’s Hawaii business has primarily consisted of vacations to just one island, according to Richards, who said explaining what is required to travel inter-island to consumers has been extraordinarily difficult.
Ted Blank, the host agency manager at Minneapolis-based Travel Leaders’ Market Square Travel, said interest in Hawaii has definitely increased since Oct. 15, but he too noted that multi-island vacations have been rare.
“In the past, most people would maybe visit two islands,” Blank said. “They would maybe go to Oahu for a few days and Maui for a few days. Now, the people we have are doing one island only because of the difficulties with inter-island travel.”
Still, Blank said the agents he works with have not viewed the pretest and other protocols required to visit Hawaii as any more onerous to explain to clients than some of its competitors.
“Hawaii is no more complex than most of the Caribbean islands right now,” Blank said, noting his clients who are willing to travel now are “pretty committed.”
“They would view something like Kauai reinstating the quarantine as a roadblock,” Blank said. “And they would probably try to find an alternative vacation rather than just cancel altogether.”
Although Hawaii’s Safe Travels pretest program has undoubtedly encountered numerous challenges over its two-month existence, industry stakeholders seem to agree that the Aloha State remains a destination that travelers will be eager to visit under more normal circumstances.
David Hu, president of Classic Vacations, said the luxury wholesaler has in recent months been focusing heavily on bookings for 2021, and news of a vaccine now approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears to be providing some light at the end of the tunnel.
If you demonstrate you’ve had the vaccination, you won’t need to quarantine.
“Based on the amount of demand I’m hearing about — once a clear vaccine travel program could be stood up — there will be vast amounts of people who want to figure out how to get there,” Hu said of Hawaii. “It’s very, very encouraging to see that on the horizon, and the amount of under-the-surface demand we’re seeing and hearing about is fantastic.”
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Pleasant’s Richards also said his company is very optimistic about the late spring, summer and fall of 2021. Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Green has already begun thinking about how to modify Hawaii’s Safe Travels program to account for visitors who are inoculated in coming months.
“If you demonstrate you’ve had the vaccination, you won’t need to quarantine,” Green said, describing some of his tentative thoughts about how to tweak the pretest approach. “I intend to have our department add a check box, so that when people have finished off the two-shot vaccination program, … then they will not need to get a pretest because they will have immunity, and that will be another exemption from quarantine.”
Longtime Hawaii specialist Marchese is looking ahead with hope, too, but the travel advisor said she still does not have any clients feeling confident enough to spend money on the Aloha State.
“I think there’s a ton of curiosity out there — everyone is interested,” Marchese said. “And yes, the vaccine has spurred a lot of hope, but no one is pulling the trigger.”
Hawaii’s Safe Travels program