Hawaii is gearing up for a new phase in its tourism reopening as officials announced partnerships with a trio of companies working to develop a vaccine passport, which they hope to unveil by summer to ease entry into the Aloha State.
Buoyed by the CDC announcement early this month declaring that it was safe for those fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to travel, state officials said they are working to incorporate a vaccine passport into the existing Safe Travels testing and screening program. They cautioned, however, that several key issues must be addressed before it can be implemented.
Under Hawaii's Safe Travels program, everyone entering the state over age 5, whether or not they have been vaccinated for Covid-19, must present proof of an approved, negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of their departure to receive an exemption from a 10-day quarantine.
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While Hawaii was working on a vaccine passport system prior to the CDC announcement, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the new federal guidance was something the state was looking for and provides more momentum to expand Safe Travels to include vaccinated travelers.
Hawaii is working with three different companies -- Clear, CommonPass and First Vitals -- to develop a system integrated with the Safe Travels program that would also serve to verify vaccination records. Once in operation, travelers with proof of vaccination against Covid-19 would be eligible to enter Hawaii without testing or quarantine.
They hope to roll out the system first for interisland travel around May 1 and then expand to out-of-state travelers a month or two later.
"It can be a game-changer for Hawaii," Green said. "We've already seen a large uptick in travel numbers. We have the [lowest] Covid-19 infection rates in the country, and I think a lot of people are deciding it's time for a trip to Hawaii. A vaccine passport program will have an enormous impact, and I'm pushing the governor and team hard to accept the program. We need to have this in place before summer travel so it's all buttoned up for everyone interested in coming."
Some hurdles ahead
There are a handful of logistical and technical hurdles to overcome to get the vaccine passport out to the public, including protecting users' privacy and how to reliably collect and store vaccination records, which are handled differently by each state.
"The tech wizards are working on it, and I expect they will be able to crack the code to get this done," Green said. "I don't expect much fraud. The penalties will be very harsh for forging a federal document, and I don't expect many people to make that mistake. Our experience with Safe Travels so far has shown very few people trying to game the system."
A couple bikes on the Ke Ala Hele Makalae path along Kauai's eastern coastline. Photo Credit: HTA/Tor Johnson
Rather than a race to the finish line, the three companies Hawaii has partnered with are expected to work together to find solutions to the trickiest issues and how to integrate the new system with the existing Safe Travels program.
"We've had 2.2 million travelers since Safe Travels started and restored 50,000 jobs, but it's still an ongoing process," Green said. "The world is not out of Covid risk yet. We continue to vaccinate our residents here, but Hawaii won't reach a herd immunity state until around July 4. It's all connected, and we need to continue to be safe. We continue to ask travelers to wear masks and socially distance."
Tourism industry pushes for swift rollout
The hospitality and tourism industry quickly picked up on the new CDC guidance and is publicly urging the state to get its vaccine passport up and running.
"I have been pushing for a vaccination passport for quite some time," said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. "The CDC 's latest position provides a lot of impetus to our desire to bolster increased travel to Hawaii safely."
Hawaiian Airlines is advocating for the removal of testing and quarantine restrictions for interisland travel, a spokesperson for the carrier said, and the company also supports a "common-sense and risk-based approach" for exempting vaccinated people from the quarantine. With Hawaii reporting the lowest rate of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people among all 50 states, the airline's leadership believes interisland travel can operate without restrictions safely and free up screening resources and other personnel for out-of-state travel.
Hawaii visitor arrival numbers have been increasing since January, but daily arrivals are still roughly half of what they were pre-pandemic.
"[A vaccine passport] will make a difference in terms of boosting our economy to bring people back to work, as we continue to lead the nation in the unemployment rate, with nearly 70,000 people who are still out of work," Hannemann said, adding that hotels are ready to welcome more guests and ramp up operations.
Former Starwood Hotels and Resorts executive and Honolulu-based hospitality consultant Keith Vieira welcomed any easing of restrictions.
The Kona Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii.
"I was in Maui this past weekend, and the hotels that I visited are running 80% this week," Vieira said. "There's no question there is strong demand for Hawaii. And if we can make this simpler and easier and have a vaccination passport, I think we will rebound a lot quicker and get our community and employees back to work."
Laura Lukasik, a travel advisor and Hawaii Specialist at Viking Travel outside of Chicago, said keeping testing options available will be important.
"In the long run, I think making the policies easy to understand and offering variety will be the way to go," Lukasik said. "For some people, being able to go with just their vaccine and not getting tested could motivate them, but I know others simply do not want the vaccine even if it means they can't travel."
Green acknowledged that not everyone is signing up to be vaccinated, and Hawaii will have to remain flexible.
"We also want to respect those that do not choose to be vaccinated, and we will still have the Safe Travels testing program available to them," he said.
Lukasik said she believes Hawaii's progress on entry alternatives this summer could help accelerate a tourism rebound while other destinations, such as Europe, are reimposing restrictions and remain closed to U.S. travelers.
"People want to travel, and places that are in their comfort zone are appealing. Hawaii has the benefit of being a unique destination that is still in the United States, and offering more options for making it easy to get there will only boost interest" Lukasik said. "Hawaii will come back with a vengeance."