Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Hawaii's tours, activities and attractions shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic are struggling to survive as business and travel restrictions have been extended numerous times.

Many of the Aloha State's tourism-dependent businesses had visions of salvaging the last days of summer after Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced that starting Aug. 1, the state would allow trans-Pacific travelers to bypass a 14-day quarantine if they test negative for coronavirus prior to travel.

But on July 12, Ige postponed the pretravel testing program to Sept. 1, with no assurance that it won't be pushed back again.

"This is hitting Hawaii very hard," said Toni Marie Davis, executive director of the Activities and Attractions Association of Hawaii. "It just doesn't pencil out for most of these businesses to be open right now. The kamaaina [local] business can't sustain them. ... The threshold for many of them to reopen will be 50% occupancy at resorts."

In May, statewide hotel occupancy was 14%, according to data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and more than half of the state's hotels have closed during the pandemic.

"There's going to be a fallout because the businesses just can't withstand the hibernation," Davis said. "There's an exodus happening right now of residents leaving, and the majority of the activities and attractions are resident-owned businesses."

While Hawaii's quarantine and social distancing measures have helped limit the spread of coronavirus on the Islands, tourism-reliant attractions have visibly struggled.

Iolani Palace started a campaign for donations to help stay afloat during the unprecedented drop in attendance. Maui Tropical Plantation, a typically busy attraction with a tram ride, ziplines and the Mill House, a well regarded farm-to-table restaurant, announced it was shutting down indefinitely. Owner Mike Atherton has pledged to reopen eventually, but it's unclear when.

Surfing Goat Dairy, a popular stop on agricultural and food tours in the Maui upcountry, has publicly stated that the shutdown has placed it in peril of closing permanently. After more than two decades of serving both locals and visitors, Da Kitchen has closed all of its locations across Oahu and Maui since the beginning of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, those still operating are working to prepare for reopening that will look nothing like when the businesses originally closed, due to ongoing social distancing and health regulations. Luaus typically involve close interaction with performers or Hawaiian cultural practitioners demonstrating skills like poi pounding or basket weaving, and the meal is served buffet style.

The Old Lahaina Luau on Maui is looking at having plated table service and cutting capacity to 25% to 40% of previous levels.

"It's going to be very hard to present whatever we do, whether it's food or entertainment in the way that made us unique," said Kawika Freitas, director of public relations. "We share from the heart. We hug. Hawaiian culture is about gathering with family and sharing. There will be a lot of things we can't do when we reopen. We will have to present things differently, and we don't want it to become robotic. That's one of the challenges -- to still provide that feeling, that aloha spirit that makes us stand out."

Freitas said he and many in the community see some of the benefits of the tourism shutdown, but as increased federal unemployment benefits expire at the end of July and the pandemic social distancing rules have lingered on, concern is growing. With capacity constraints, there most likely won't be enough demand to bring back all of the 450 employees who work at the Old Lahaina Luau and three restaurants under the same management right away. 

"There is some good and some bad," said Kawika Freitas, director of public relations. "Our beloved island has finally been able to rejuvenate itself with less visitors and less crowded beaches ... we are seeing such color coming back to the ocean. Nature is doing its job. On the economic side it's devastating because we do rely so heavily on tourism. ... If something doesn't happen soon, some of these businesses will shut down."

At the Polynesian Cultural Center on the north shore, the majority of the more than 1,400 workers have been furloughed, and management was planning to reopen in August before pushing back a month in response to the governor's decision to delay pretravel testing. 

The North Shore Oahu attraction is a sprawling campus with different "villages" dedicated to distinct Polynesian cultures, such as Tahiti, Hawaii, Samoa and Tonga. The closure did provide the PCC with the chance to spruce up the attractions and clean and dredge the lagoon running through the property, something that had not been done in more than a decade, according to Seth Casey, senior manager of marketing. But now, with maintenance projects out of the way, they are ready to reopen and welcome back visitors and their workforce. 

"We were excited for that light at the end of the tunnel, we had been yearning for that," Casey said, referring to the postponed start of the testing program.

"While it was not a shock that it got pushed back, it was disappointing to say the least. We want travel to be as safe as possible, and I don't think anyone wants to rush into anything that could be dangerous for residents and the community, but financially there is a big question mark. Federal aid is up at the end of this month, and how will our employees and other workers fare?"

The Polynesian Cultural Center is also adjusting its programming in anticipation of reopening, including switching the luau from buffet to table service. The evening show can seat 2,700 spectators, but new social distancing requirements mean the venue capacity will likely be cut by two-thirds. Many of the village activities, which are mostly outdoors, will remain but some will be modified to eliminate physical interactions.

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization has predicted that it could take three to five years for tourism to rebound to pre-Covid levels, and tourism-dependent businesses say additional delays in reopening are compounding the problem. For a state with 1.4 million residents, the 10 million annual visitors represent an essential customer base.

"In Hawaii the small businesses, the restaurants, the shops rely on the volume of traffic that comes from the tourism industry," Casey said. "Many of them cannot not make the economics work without the tourist traffic." 

Davis said more business closures are all but guaranteed and suggested, given reticence among travelers to fly in 2020, the state could have reopened as planned on Aug. 1 without much fear of a crush of visitors. Ige pointed to coronavirus spikes in California and elsewhere in the United States, and questions regarding the availability of testing as reasons for his postponement for pretravel testing. While Hawaii has fared relatively well in containing the spread of the virus, the infection rate has increased in July, and Freitas acknowledged that a place like Maui, with only one acute care hospital, could be overwhelmed quickly with a surge in cases despite currently reporting comparatively few cases.

The Activities and Attractions Association is working with its members to prepare for reopening, including partnering with a local provider to set up a reservation system for luaus and other experiences that will allow for contact tracing, something the Old Lahaina Luau plans to deploy when tourism is finally given the go-ahead.

"Moving forward as more things close permanently we will not be able to provide the same level of service," Freitas said. "Every day the quarantine is pushed back means less and less options when we do open, and it will take longer to get back to being able to adequately provide the services and experiences people have come to expect in Hawaii."

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