Hawaii hotel occupancy remained flat in January

Andrew Gomes, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·6 min read

Feb. 23—Hawaii's hotel industry remained stuck with January occupancy not much above 20 % for a third consecutive month, and Harold Troupe can see it in the lobby of where he's staying.

"It's basically empty, " said Troupe, a visitor from Pennsylvania who arrived Friday with his wife and his sister and her husband after an ordeal navigating Hawaii's COVID-19 travel requirements.

Hotel business is so slow that Troupe hasn't seen any other tourists at the front desk of the Waikiki Monarch Hotel since he checked in.

"Except for a security guard, there's nobody there, " he said Monday.

"The snowbirds are definitely missing, " added Keoni Wheatley, a self-employed tour guide. "We're losing a lot of money."

The Hawaii Tourism Authority said in a Monday report that 23.3 % of hotel rooms statewide were occupied last month, based on a survey by Tennessee-based hospitality industry research firm STR Inc.

January's occupancy compared with 83.5 % in the same month last year before tourism was sidelined by coronavirus fears and restrictions. January's occupancy also was a tad below 23.8 % in December and a little higher than 22.1 % in November.

"We are obviously very concerned that our industry continues to struggle, " said Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann. "It has a ripple effect on the rest of the businesses that feed on tourism."

Travelers arriving by plane in Hawaii are currently subject to state rules mandating that passengers quarantine for 10 days unless they present negative COVID-19 test results from specially authorized testing partners before they board a plane bound for Hawaii provided tests are no more than 72 hours old. (An exception allowing tests up to 96 hours before departure from mainland airports is in effect until Wednesday due to bad winter storms on the mainland.)

Different versions of these rules under the state's Safe Travels program have been in place since Oct. 15. Recent changes included requiring tests before getting on a plane bound for Hawaii instead of prior to arrival, and shortening the quarantine to 10 days from 14.

Some counties in Hawaii have more restrictive conditions.

For example, Kauai County quit participating in Safe Travels on Dec. 2 and required all travelers to quarantine upon arrival. Then on Jan. 5, Kauai County adopted Safe Travels rules only for interisland travelers who present-valid test results and have been in Hawaii more than three days.

Travelers to Kauai also have an option to quarantine for a shorter period at certain resorts with extra testing conditions.

Hawaii County as well as Maui, Molokai and Lanai also had "partial " quarantine requirements in January, HTA noted in its report.

Despite efforts to reboot tourism under Safe Travels, monthly hotel occupancy stayed between 19.7 % and 21.7 % from July to October, and is up only a bit more since then.

The levels are far from a rough industry standard of 55 % to 60 % occupancy that most hotels need to be profitable.

Troupe said an easier test process would help, including more places to get tests and customer service to help with questions.

Troupe's travel party was scheduled to arrive in Honolulu on Thursday, but their test results got rejected after they said the health care provider from which they received the tests was OK, only to find out from a Hawaiian Airlines agent in San Diego that the tester was not an accepted "trusted testing " partner. That led to a second test being needed.

Bob Derr, Troupe's brother-in-law, said he had to buy a new mobile phone to receive and display test results. And the group also paid for a third batch of tests in Honolulu so they can go to Maui later this week where they want to see whales.

A pilot project is being started to "tremendously expand " Hawaii's approved travel test provider network, Gov. David Ige said Monday during an appearance on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser's Spotlight online video program.

Ige also said state officials are preparing to change Safe Travels to accommodate travelers who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, but that deciding how and when to implement such a change hasn't yet been determined.

"The (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ) has not provided any guidance about those who are vaccinated and how they should be treated if they travel, " Ige said. "Until we get official designation from the CDC, we won't be making changes to the Safe Travels program to reflect the vaccinations."

One issue is that scientific study results are being awaited to show whether vaccinated people can spread COVID-19.

Ige said draft changes to the program include creating a vaccination passport, though how to verify vaccination could be difficult.

"That's really an important part of the Safe Travels program—being able to verify that those who say they were vaccinated actually were vaccinated, " he said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green recently advocated for loosening up travel restrictions to accommodate vaccinated travelers to Hawaii perhaps by May 1, and relaxing rules for travel to neighbor islands from Oahu perhaps by March 1 to account for a growing population of vaccinated residents and falling COVID-19 case counts on Oahu.

Hannemann and other travel industry representatives also have pushed for a host of changes to make travel easier while maintaining safety.

Ige said such changes pegged to any timetable are premature, but he said he knows how important it is for Hawaii tourism to rebound.

Last month, revenue from hotel rooms statewide totaled $90.4 million, which was down 79.5 % from $441.7 million in the same month last year.

Much of the revenue decline was due to low occupancy, but hotel room pricing also has taken a hit. The average daily rate for a room in January was $251, down 20.2 % from $315 a year earlier.

By county in January, Hawaii island had the highest occupancy at 26.9 %, while the average daily rate was $268.

Oahu hotels were 23.6 % full and had a $168 average daily rate.

Maui County hotels were 21.9 % full and had the highest average daily rate at $451.

Kauai had the lowest occupancy at 18.4 % and a $168 average daily rate.

HTA's report excludes closed hotels from occupancy calculations. Changes in hotel room supply varied widely from no change on Hawaii island and a 0.3 % dip on Maui to an 11 % reduction on Oahu and a 22.9 % drop on Kauai.

The survey last month included 145 properties representing 42, 614 rooms, or 80.2 % of hotels and condominium hotels in Hawaii. Vacation rental properties are not included in the survey.