The good news for Hawaii tourism has been piling up faster than the Islands' cherished food trucks churn out plate lunches.
A year after Hawaii started its pandemic lockdown with stay-at-home orders and a quarantine for all incoming arrivals, the Aloha State is welcoming an extended period of positive developments for tourism.
To start, visitor numbers are steadily headed up. In February, Hawaii's hotels reported the highest occupancy rate since the pandemic shuttered the state. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), hotels statewide were reporting 30% occupation in February, an increase from 23% in January. That's nowhere near the 85% occupancy the hotels enjoyed in February 2020, but any increase is a reason for hope these days.
As spring break season arrives, the HTA reported more than 26,000 out-of-state arrivals were screened by the state's Safe Travels program on March 13, the busiest day at Hawaii airports since the pandemic restrictions were imposed last March.
In response, airlines and airports are ramping up operations and preparing for more Hawaii travel. Oakland Airport in California, which is currently the only airport certified by the Hawaii State Department of Health as a trusted testing partner, is preparing its terminals for a spring and summer crush of Hawaii-bound travelers. The airport is opening up more food and beverage venues, further enhancing cleaning protocols and preparing to offer even more preflight testing.
"We know that the Hawaiian Islands are a top destination for the 4.2 million people in OAK's primary catchment area as well as for those in the greater San Francisco Bay Area," said Port of Oakland director of aviation Bryant Francis. "We also know that there is a considerable amount of pent-up demand for travel, and our research indicates that much of it is for Hawaii."
Here's a look at some other positive developments for Hawaii tourism:
The Garden Isle is back on board: Kauai is re-entering the state's Safe Travels program on April 5, making travel to the island less cumbersome than it has been for the past several months.
The Garden Isle had opted out of Safe Travels shortly after it was adopted in mid-October, creating its own, stricter set of protocols that required everyone to quarantine for at least a short period of time no matter when and how often they were tested for Covid-19 or what the results of those test were. Since Jan. 5, in addition to proof of a negative Covid-19 test prior to travel, Kauai has also mandated arriving visitors spend 72 hours at a participating resort bubble at one of nine participating properties on the island and take a second post-arrival coronavirus test before being permitted to leave the resort grounds.
The Safe Travels program currently requires all travelers age 5 and older to take a Covid-19 test from a trusted testing partner within 72 hours of their departure to Hawaii. Visitors must upload negative results to their Safe Travels profile prior to departure of the Hawaii-bound flight or self-quarantine for 10 days or the duration of their stay, whichever is shorter.
Kauai hotels are already preparing, bringing back staff and offering promotions. The Koloa Landing Resort's new "Aloha Kauai" package offers a seventh night free, complimentary daily breakfast, and 5,000 Marriott Bonvoy points as an incentive.
All Castle Resorts and Hotels on Kauai -- the Kaha Lani Resort, Kauai Kailani Resort, Kiahuna Plantation and the Beach Bungalows, Makahuena at Poipu, the ISO, and Poipu Shores -- are offering a new Huakai Kauai promotion, which knocks 30% off the best available rates.
"We're excited that Kauai is rejoining the State's Safe Travels program," said Castle Resorts and Hotels president and CEO Alan Mattson. "There is a lot of pent-up travel demand for Kauai, and this opportunity allows guests to rediscover the island in a safe way."
Oahu opening up: Meanwhile, on Oahu the range of activities available is steadily increasing, and nightlife on the state's most populated island is on its way back.
In early March, Honolulu mayor Rick Blangiardi accelerated the county's reopening plan, changing regulations to allow bars to reopen under Tier 3, the current designation. Additionally, large conventions and funerals are now permitted, and starting in April outdoor sporting events can resume.
For conventions and other large events, the affair must be "static," according to the regulations, meaning those in attendance must "reserve a seat, attend the seated event, and leave," the revised regulations state. While no capacity limit is stipulated, social distancing and masks are still required. Groups seated together are limited to 10 people, and weddings with more than 10 people in attendance are still prohibited.
"We're starting to see some good booking momentum with spring break, but it will help a lot to have more activities on Oahu," said Seattle-based travel advisor Terry Uemura, who is from Hawaii and specializes in travel to the islands. "I just booked a couple for Oahu, and they are doing some private tours, but some things are still not available. Because of restrictions on capacity, transportation has been harder because a lot of attractions aren't offering shuttle service like they did before. That should get easier as restrictions lift."
Vaccine passport on the way? Currently, even those who have completed their vaccine course must observe the Safe Travel rules and present a negative Covid-19 test result to avoid quarantine.
But Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the state is working on a system to enable those who have been fully vaccinated and can provide documentation to skip the Safe Travels protocol. The hope is the system will be up and running by the middle of May, and the state is working with digital health app CommonPass to develop the passport.
"This is the way we restore our economy very quickly," Green said, while discussing progress on the program in February. "We would likely see a huge uptick in visitors by, say, the fall this way."