Hawaii's Neighbor Islands considering a 'resort bubble'

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The Fairmont Orchid is a member of the Kohala Coast Resort Association on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The Fairmont Orchid is a member of the Kohala Coast Resort Association on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

In an effort to get tourism moving again, the less populated Hawaiian islands of Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii are considering a "resort bubble" proposal that would restrict visitors to their hotel property but would also allow them more freedom of movement than the current mandatory 14-day quarantine for all transpacific arrivals.

The program, which is still in the planning phase, would use geolocation technology to monitor the movements of hotel guests and alert officials if they go outside of a predetermined geofence.

"[The geofence is] another idea we've been tossing out there," Roy Takemoto, the Hawaii County managing director, told the county council in late July, according to an Associated Press report. "They would be allowed to stay at selected resorts, and the resorts would control where the visitors would be allowed to range."

The idea has intrigued public officials and tourism authorities eager to get the state's No. 1 private industry up and running again but also comes with numerous questions.

The geofencing technology would use an app that participants would download to their smartphone. The app would track their movements using existing GPS capabilities and alert the vendor if they leave the resort area, who would in turn advise authorities of the violation.

Resort guests would have to agree to the electronic monitoring, and it is unclear what facilities and amenities would be open to guests while still observing state social distancing and health guidelines.

It also remains to be seen how hotels would handle having some guests subject to quarantine while others had no restrictions.

The resort bubble idea picked up steam on Kauai, where mayor Derek Kawakami has taken an aggressive approach to the pandemic, imposing strict rules on businesses and movement early on, posting videos on social media to both entertain constituents observing stay-at-home orders and facilitate communication and considering novel solutions to the various ramifications of the pandemic.

Stephanie Donoho, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association, said the idea is intriguing but agreed that there are many more questions than answers right now.

"We're just starting to examine what this would look like for all user groups, because the resorts are not just limited to tourists," she said. "There are residents, our kamaaina, that we have to think about. Some of the properties include timeshares, and others have shopping centers."

Donoho said the resort association is waiting on detailed answers from the government and app developers on how the system would function before weighing in.

"We haven't dismissed anything out of hand," she said.

Other questions from the association's perspective include: Who will pay for the app and its implementation? How will it be managed, and how will personal information and data be handled? And, how will the program be enforced?

The Kohala Coast Resort Association includes the Fairmont Orchid, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, Hilton Waikoloa Village, Hilton Grand Vacations, Mauna Lani Auberge Resorts Collection, Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, among other members. Some 5,000 workers from those properties have been furloughed during the pandemic, while the employers are maintaining their health benefits at this time, according to Donoho.

Donoho said she is hopeful that technological advances -- such as rapid, easily accessible saliva testing -- will enable the Aloha State to safely reopen to visitors sooner rather than later.

"Nobody has a playbook on what to do in a global pandemic and how to reopen the tourism economy," she said. "We need to examine different strategies, and it will probably not be just one thing -- it won't be a magic bullet that does it."

Still, as the state's two-week quarantine moves into its fifth month, new proposals that return hospitality workers to their jobs safely and start the incremental return of tourism are being explored.

The mandatory quarantine started March 26, and those subject to the measure cannot leave their hotel room or other accommodations for any purpose other than a medical emergency. Hotels have either closed during this time or suffered steep drops in occupancy.

Meanwhile, the state has announced a pretravel testing program that would allow visitors to bypass the quarantine if they test negative for coronavirus within 72 hours of arrival. The program was originally slated to launch Aug. 1 but was later pushed back to Sept. 1. Now, with Hawaii's infection rate rising during late July and early August, the state is reimposing restrictions on businesses and public spaces, and the likelihood the testing program is delayed once again is increasing.

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