Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

The president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association (HLTA) says his primary worry as the state contemplates reopening to tourism is an expectation that the rebound will be as sudden as the decline. 

Mufi Hannemann, a former Hawaii legislator and mayor of Honolulu, has led the HLTA, which represents more than 160 hotels and hundreds of other businesses affiliated with tourism, since 2011. How Hawaii proceeds in the next few months will be crucial to restoring the tourism industry to its previous record-breaking ways, he said. 

"I think my chief concern is that we do not lose sight of the fact that this is a difficult, challenging period, and it will be harder on us as we try to recover," Hannemann said. "I think some people are under the impression that we'll open, visitors will return and it will be back to the old numbers. It will not happen that way. If there's an expectation that 100% of the furloughed workers will be hired back immediately, that's just not how it will work."

Hannemann is also dismayed over the roughly 100 visitors who continue to arrive in Hawaii each day despite the 14-day quarantine and officials' requests for tourists to stay home -- orders Gov. David Ige recently extended through May 31.

"We'd rather have no visitors at all at this time except for essential workers, military and flight crews," Hannemann said. "Every time someone comes here, it raises alarms for the community, and if you don't have a confirmed place to stay for the quarantine they will ask you to return, or you could be subject to fines and other penalties. ... The community is very engaged, and residents are not hesitating at all to serve as witnesses and notify law enforcement of quarantine violations." 

To support the effort to discourage visitors during the stay-at-home order, the HLTA produced an hour-long show available on YouTube, "Stay Home Now, Aloha Later," with a variety of Hawaii and mainland celebrities such as "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" actor Terry Crews, musician Jason Mraz, and the recent fifth pick in the NFL draft, Tua Tagovailoa. The show includes music and other entertainment, messages of support for Hawaii, requests for visitors to stay home until restrictions end, and a new program to donate to service industry personnel impacted by layoffs, furloughs and reductions in hours. Supporters can purchase $20 "Aloha Later" ribbons with the proceeds going to relief efforts in the state. Then, when they visit Hawaii after it reopens, they can redeem a $20 discount code at one of a list of hotels, tour providers, restaurants, shopping malls and other attractions.

Hannemann said top priorities for the HLTA during this time include supporting furloughed and laid-off workers, contributing to the overall collaborative effort in Hawaii to arrest the spread of Covid-19, and helping to craft the strategy to restart tourism and the economy as a whole. The tourism shutdown in a state that welcomed 10 million visitors in 2019 also provides a chance for reflection after a decade of steady growth.

"Every crisis presents an opportunity," he said. "We've been talking a long time about responsible tourism. We have record-breaking numbers, and I've always cautioned folks in the industry and lawmakers to be responsive to community concerns. When there are record numbers of visitors, there are less opportunities for residents to enjoy beaches and parks. When so many people come here and are using Hawaii's resources we have to ask: What's being done to preserve this for the future?"

Hannemann said he is not surprised that the pandemic has renewed debates about over-reliance on tourism and diversifying Hawaii's economy. 

"I've been involved with every diversification effort since the '80s, and they all have fallen short of what tourism brings to the table," said Hannemann, while adding that the conversation about Hawaii's economy still holds merit.

"Even if we found an alternative industry today, it would take a while to ramp that up," he said, noting the Aloha State tourism industry generates $2 billion in state tax revenue annually.

When the stay-at-home order is lifted, maintaining Hawaii's reputation as a safe, clean and healthy place to visit is paramount.

"Hawaii has a long reputation as a safe place to visit, and that will be put to a real test when the world reopens," Hannemann said. "There's a trust and credibility factor -- that's how tourists will make decisions when they choose to travel again."

Hannemann is currently busy collaborating with association members and other organizations to be prepared for the eventual reopening. He has reached out to state restaurant, retail and other associations to brainstorm uniform and consistent reopening procedures including health and safety practices. 

"We'll have to up our game. We have to look at thermal scanners and other new technology that will help restart tourism while keeping people safe," Hannemann said. "I think we'll also have to continue some of the current practices right now, such as enhanced cleaning and sanitization procedures in hotels, restaurants and other places. We have to make sure workers and visitors are safe when we open up again. It's not just the hotels -- the airlines have to change how they do things too. There will be more testing, and airlines will have to reconsider the check-in process."

When visitors do return to the Islands, he cautioned that it could be more of a trickle than a flood, suggesting a realistic expectation is tourism returning to anywhere from 20% to 40% of previous levels by the end of the year.

But it won't be "operating on all four cylinders," Hannemann said, and with that in mind, it will take a collaborative effort with support from state government and Aloha State residents.

"I certainly hope the legislature is not considering any new taxes on the industry," he said. "But support with health and unemployment benefits, or property tax waivers could all be helpful. It's all important when we talk about restoring Hawaii's No. 1 industry."

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