Gov. David Ige ready to welcome fully vaccinated domestic travelers back to Hawaii Nov. 1

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Oct. 20—Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday that Hawaii will be "open to vaccinated residents and visitors who are traveling domestically and between islands for business or pleasure, starting Nov. 1."

Ige made the announcement at the opening of the permanent Federal Inspection Services facility at the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. On Aug. 23, in response to a summer surge in COVID-19 cases, Ige asked travelers to avoid nonessential travel to Hawaii through October.

"I think we are all encouraged by what we've seen over the last several weeks with the continuing trend of lower case counts, " Ige said in a news release. "Our hospitals are doing better, and we have fewer COVID patients in them. Most importantly, our health care system has responded, and we have the ability to move forward with economic recovery. Because of this, it is now safe for fully vaccinated residents and visitors to resume non-essential travel " to and within the state.

When Ige closed the state to nonessential travel in August, the state's visitor industry was largely blind-sided, with little time to prepare for subsequent tourism-related fallout as CNN and news outlets around the globe ran the story.

While Tuesday's announcement was low-key compared with the governor's request issued in August, it was apparently just as surprising. Hawaii Tourism Authority's communications firm, Anthology Group, and HTA's top contractor, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, did not send Hawaii's travel partners updated information until hours after Ige had delivered his Tuesday remarks.

Even so, Ige's latest messaging for travelers brought relief to Hawaii's visitor industry, which had already been grappling with challenges related to the highly contagious delta variant when the state's stay-away messaging further fanned flames threatening recovery.

For much of 2020, Hawaii's travel industry was in the red. The state didn't begin allowing domestic travelers to bypass the travel quarantine until mid-October 2020 when it created the Safe Travels Hawaii screening program. That program still allows domestic travelers and travelers from some other nations to bypass the travel quarantine if they meet travel testing program requirements. Since July 8, domestic trans-Pacific travelers have been able to skip the testing requirement if they can prove they're fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Biden administration's new vaccination and testing program for international travelers takes effect Nov. 8. But it's still unclear whether Hawaii plans to align Safe Travels requirements for international travelers with the new federal rule.

On Tuesday Tennessee-­based STR released September hotel data for Hawaii, showing that Hawaii's tourism recovery was significantly disrupted in the month following Ige's request for a travel pause.

STR reported that statewide hotel occupancy in September dropped to 55.2 %—the lowest occupancy rate since April. COVID-19 vaccine distribution helped spur travel, thereby boosting hotel occupancy recovery to 77 % by June and 82.4 % by July. But it declined to 73.5 % in August due in part to traveler concerns about surging counts in COVID-19 cases and whether visitors would be welcomed in Hawaii.

September's hotel occupancy was strikingly higher than September 2020, when statewide occupancy was at 19.6 % and the state still required a lengthy travel quarantine for all nonexempt travelers. However, it was down 23.1 percentage points from the 78.8 % statewide occupancy reported in September 2019.

Emmy Hise, CoStar Group's director of hospitality analytics for the Western U.S., told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email statement that STR's data shows a slowdown in August /September on a national level.

"The strong summer results were driven by the leisure traveler. As kids returned to school leisure demand has been reduced and the other travel segments that would normally offset the leisure segment are lagging in recovery, " Hise said. "Hawaii is a bit different as historically there wasn't a wide range of seasonality as there was year-round demand."

Hise noted that the daily occupancy percentage for Hawaii was in the mid-70s to low 80s through Aug. 21. But since that date Hawaii's occupancy has mostly hovered in the 50 %-to-57 % range.

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said the delta variant has affected some of the other destinations that the company sells, but none as greatly as Hawaii.

"Mexico is up high double digits for October, November and December and is up triple digits for 2022 compared to 2019. Europe is looking at a record season in 2022, " Richards said. "Hawaii is down double digits. People don't like the uncertainty, and they don't like the capacity limits."

Richards said Hawaii needs to convince travelers that they are welcome or risk losing its festive season, the historically peak travel period that runs from Dec. 21 to Jan. 3.

"Normally, Hawaii is sold out for festive season by now, " Richards said. "I have 45 hotels on Oahu that still have occupancy for that period and 22 on Maui."

Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said he and a statewide coalition of representatives from tourism, restaurants, retail, ground and air transportation, labor unions and chambers of commerce pushed hard for the Nov. 1 timeline.

"While we recognize that there are still details that need to be sorted out—paying special mind to input from the county mayors and information provided by the health care community and the business sector—this announcement is an important first step toward getting our economy moving again safely and judiciously, " Hannemann said.

Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, wrote Ige a letter Oct. 6 advising that Hawaii's hospital leadership supported more fully opening up for business.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room doctor, has been advocating for reopening since the end of September.

"We dropped 50 % from our peak in hospitalizations on Sept. 29 and dropped below 50 % of our peak active cases on Sept. 26, " Green said in a text message to the Star-Advertiser. "That's when it was clear we should start reducing restrictions. For the last two to three weeks it's been evident that the delta surge was winding down and we were well enough vaccinated to open up without significant risk. "

Green said Hawaii should also lift all outdoor restrictions on Nov. 1 and encourage people to be outside.

"Vaccinated individuals are also safe indoors in larger numbers, " he said. "Businesses that can verify vaccination or that someone has had a recent negative test, should be completely open. It's time to move toward normal for people's psychological, social and economic well being."

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