Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Like a bucket of water on a beach bonfire, the delta variant has doused hopes of a smooth, linear tourism recovery in the Aloha State.

Travel to Hawaii was steadily growing in 2021, but with the imposition of new restrictions, the governor's call for visitors to delay trips to the state and the possibility of further limitations on businesses and activities if the Covid-19 case rate does not fall quickly, the islands are entering a new period of unpredictability.

Through the first half of the year the number of visitors to the state increased each month: More than 171,000 visitors arrived in January, a number that was up to nearly 800,000 in June. While the data for July has not been released yet, other indicators show it was also a strong month for tourism.

Hawaii's hotels reported 82% occupancy in July, up from 77% in June, and hotel room revenues in July were more than $500 million, a 15% increase over July 2019. But by early August, Hawaii's Covid-19 case rate was surging, and hospitals across the state began to fill up. Even prior to Gov. David Ige's Aug. 23 press conference when he recommended against all but essential travel to and from the state, Hawaii officials saw that delta variant was increasingly likely to halt tourism's momentum. 

"July was a strong month for Hawaii's hotel industry statewide" Hawaii Tourism Authority president John De Fries said in a release earlier that day accompanying the hotel figures. "We're encouraged by how the industry has recovered this summer but are concerned as to whether this level of performance will carry over into the fall shoulder season, especially if the impacts of the Delta variant overwhelms Hawaii's healthcare systems and weakens consumer confidence and travel demand."

Those comments proved prescient. By the end of the day, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi had suspended large gatherings on Oahu through Sept. 22, and the governor's plea for visitors to postpone upcoming trips to Hawaii through October had made national headlines. Later in the week, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino announced he was working with state officials on approval for a plan that would ask residents and visitors to Maui County, which includes the islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai, to voluntarily curb nonessential activities, including gatherings, for 21 days.

"It's really been the leisure market that has come back this summer, and we've been running at 80% occupancy," said Lynette Eastman, general manager of the Surfjack Hotel in Waikiki. "I expected that to come down as people returned home to get kids into school and entering our shoulder season."

Now, Eastman said she expects the slowdown to be even more dramatic as travelers heed the governor's recommendation.

The Island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island.
The Island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island. Photo Credit: Milan van Weelden/Shutterstock.com

The governor stopped short of issuing a mandate, and some in travel said that left them in a tricky position.

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Within 24 hours of Ige's call for visitors to put their vacation plans on hold, Jack Richard's, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said two groups booked to go to Hawaii in September were considering cancelling due to the announcement.

"I expect to see a slowing in Hawaii bookings as a result of this, but it's difficult to quantify how much it will be," he said. 

Hawaii's Covid-19 case in August logged the highest numbers of any point during the pandemic. As of Aug. 24 Hawaii has averaged 701 new cases per day over the previous week, a 17% increase from the seven-day average on Aug. 11. The surge has been largely attributed to community spread. According to Hawaii Department of Health data, travel-related Covid-19 cases in July made up about 14% of cases, with only 1% linked to nonresident travelers. More than 90% of recent cases have been linked to the delta variant. As hospital beds have filled and intensive care units reached capacity, officials grew concerned any additional strain on health resources could prove unmanageable, influencing the decision to discourage tourism. 

Debbie Misajon, a Hawaii-based travel advisor and owner of The Coconut Traveler, which specializes in bespoke, luxury vacations to the state, said the islands struggled to handle the summer influx of travelers in part due to capacity and staffing issues, and a reset was not entirely unwelcome.

"While not well received news on one hand, there's certainly a sigh of relief on many others," she said. "The islands have been inundated with arrivals and challenged due to the global industry staffing shortage." 

Misajon said her clients are mostly booked in private activities and experiences unaffected by the ban on large gatherings, but the events industry was just starting to see restrictions on groups loosen before they were quickly reinstated.  

"I ache for industry friends here that are undoing and refunding unpaid hours of planning group and incentive business. The weddings industry is mostly mom and pop shops as are the florists, lei makers, tent providers and musicians, this will be devastating for many of them," she said. 

How Hawaii airlift is affected

Ige said he met with airlines to request they share the message that tourists are not wanted in Hawaii right now. He added that he is prohibited by antitrust laws from discussing changes to fares, schedules or flights with the airlines. 

One day after Ige's press conference, Southwest Airlines launched a three-day sale on fares to Hawaii for travel through Dec. 15. The preplanned promotion could not be completely canceled on short notice, a spokesman for Southwest said, but it did reach out to the state to let officials know the airline would do what it could to limit the promotion's scope and reach. The airline continues to adjust its marketing with regards to Hawaii as the pandemic has developed, the spokesman said, and he added that service is still needed for state residents, essential travel for family and business reasons, and the transport of supplies and first responders. 

For Hawaii's travel industry, it means the uncertainty of what's around the next corner that began in March 2020 with the onset of the pandemic continues. 

"The lack of clarity has been ongoing," Misajon said. "Keep in mind, most of our cases are a result of community transmission around the state, our own population traveling and bringing back the virus and variant, and folks who remain unvaccinated. We can only hope that more people will get vaccinated, the numbers will begin to drop, and by doing the right thing we can put this behind us."

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