Since its inception in 1997, the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii (VASH) has stepped up for tourists and other travelers in need. The staff supports victims of thefts and car break-ins, aids the injured or unlucky, and ensures the victims still leave with a positive impression of the destination.
Under the statewide Covid-19 restrictions, VASH's work has changed to assisting the state in its efforts to halt tourism for the time being. VASH is in charge of administering a program that is intercepting Hawaii visitors at arrival and sending them back to their city of origin if they are not prepared to observe a mandatory quarantine period. VASH, founded by the Rotary Club of Honolulu, today operates statewide and is funded through the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
"We are part of the tourism authority, and our mission is to take care of visitors in need and make sure they still feel welcome, feel the aloha," VASH president Jessica Lani Rich said. "But right now our message is; 'Please be respectful of the people of Hawaii; we are closed for business right now for tourism.' When we reopen, then we will be so excited to see visitors again. For your safety and our safety, do not come to Hawaii right now."
In mid-March, Gov. David Ige urged visitors not to come to Hawaii and announced a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period for all arrivals to the state, which went into effect March 26. On April 6, the Covid-19 Flight Assistance Program got started with a grant from HTA. With assistance from other state agencies, including teams vetting arriving passengers at Hawaii airports, VASH identifies visitors who have not made arrangements for accommodations and are not prepared to observe the self-quarantine.
"We've helped people during hurricanes, when airlines shut down without notice, and even the missile alert scare a couple years ago, but in my 16 years on the job I've never seen anything like this," Rich said. "I always say to my staff: 'Just when you think you've seen everything, something else happens.'"
In its first week, VASH helped send 10 visitors back to their home cities on return flights, and Rich said they are seeing a few cases each day.
"We assisted one woman from Denver, and when we asked her the reason she came to Hawaii, she said she thought it was a good time to come," Rich said. "She said the fares and hotels were cheap and there wouldn't be as many visitors. But she made no arrangements, so we put her up in a hotel for one night and then sent her home on a flight."
Rich said that most of the visitors do know about the statewide restrictions to halt the spread of coronavirus, but are intentionally flouting the requests to stay home and observe the quarantine.
"Who wants to come to Hawaii and stay in their room for two weeks?" Rich asked rhetorically. "They say they want to do [the quarantine], but we are seeing the tourists out in the community."
Normally, Hawaii would welcome nearly 30,000 arrivals per day, and HTA reports show approximately 100 visitors still landing in the Aloha State daily. But that is still too many for state officials, who have pleaded for visitors to postpone their island vacations, and have unsuccessfully lobbied the federal government to temporarily ban nonessential travel to the state.
"My message to anyone who is planning to come to Hawaii right now to take advantage of the cheap rates is for them to please cancel their reservations and come at another time," Rich said. "Don't be selfish. Don't be irresponsible. Come when we open up again. And it's not just Hawaii, other parts of the country are asking the same thing. We are isolated out here, and if we have further spread of the virus here, it will be a very difficult situation."
State authorities have discussed increasing measures to deter tourism during the pandemic. The HTA is informing hotels of guests who need to be quarantined, and Tim Sakahara of the state transportation department said they might start randomly calling to verify that visitors are staying in their rooms.
Additionally, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Incident commander Kenneth Hara said during a legislative committee briefing on April 13 that the state is exploring limiting travelers' ability to make hotel reservations.
"The more people stay home now, the sooner we will all have an opportunity to open businesses once again and welcome back tourism," Rich said.