Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Through the first half of 2020, the Aloha State welcomed 59% fewer visitors than through the first six months of 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Recently released reports on visitation and Hawaii hotel performance have helped define the true impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the state's tourism industry at a time when reopening plans and dates are in doubt.

In June, visitor arrivals fell 98% compared with the same month last year. After setting a record pace for visitors through the first quarter, the decline in travel during the second quarter has more than wiped out the early gains.

All passengers arriving from out of state have been required to abide by a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine since March 26. Accordingly, air capacity to the Islands has also been drastically reduced, with trans-Pacific air seats to Hawaii down 91% from one year ago. 

In addition to the 59% drop in visitors in the first half of 2020, total visitor days dropped 55% compared to the same period in 2019. Additionally, Hawaii hotels' average daily rate increased 4%, to $291, while occupancy and revenue per available room sharply declined relative to last year. Total hotel revenues dropped 51%, to $1.09 billion, with occupancy falling 31 percentage points, to roughly 50%, and RevPAR down 36%. More than half of all hotels in Hawaii closed at some point during the pandemic, according to the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, which has recently taken up the call to reboot the Aloha State's tourism industry in the near future. 

Association head Mufi Hannemann told a Hawaii Tourism Authority marketing committee recently that the hotel industry is prepared to welcome guests back with a plan that surpasses Centers for Disease Control requirements.

"This is a statewide effort on standards that has been vetted by the governor's office, supported by the Department of Health, blessed by the state Attorney General's office," he said. "We will basically take care of a customer or guest that comes to Hawaii and during the course of their stay, they contract the virus, what have you. It's incumbent for us to take care of that person or persons until they require hospitalization."

Currently, state officials plan to launch a pre-travel testing program on Sept. 1, under which travelers to the state can skip the mandatory quarantine period if they test negative for coronavirus with 72 hours of arrival. 

"Everyone needs to be committed to do their part to help us be able to launch the pre-travel testing program in order for us to be successful," Gov. David Ige, who already postponed the start of the pre-travel testing program from Aug. 1 to Sept 1., said during a recent press conference. "And if there are too many cases here and we haven't stopped the increase, then we would be looking at delaying the Sept. 1 date."

State officials and travelers alike still question whether Hawaii can safely reopen to the U.S. mainland and avoid an unmanageable surge in coronavirus cases, and if there is enough testing capacity for the pre-travel program to function as designed. 

"When Hawaii gets its policy out there, I think you'll see demand," said Patricia Christensen, Delta Vacations' director of product development for the U.S. "Right now the uncertainty of the situation, and whether dates or regulations will change again, is holding people back."

At Delta Vacations, they found many customers were unaware of the quarantine and the specific provisions, and the company is reaching out to customers before they depart to make sure that they are aware of the restrictions and enforcement.

"Short-term bookings to Hawaii have pretty much dried up completely," Christensen said. "A few people are going who we reach out to, and they have a waiver as an essential worker or what have you. There is always hope Hawaii will open up. People with spring bookings pushed to summer, and then they moved it to fall. Every time we get an update, a lot of our customers will keep the booking and push the travel date out further. But the longer this goes on, the fewer people are holding on to the booking."

At least initially, Christensen thinks people will wait to see how the pre-travel testing program functions before committing to a visit.

"Because of all this noise and moving parts, if someone wants to travel this year to Hawaii, it gets a little complicated," she said. "We have the product available at Delta Vacations and we are providing the information, but it's also a reason why we have a generous waiver right now. With bookings for this year, there is no penalty if the customer wants to rebook."

With the majority of the world cut off to U.S. travelers, Christensen said Mexico volume has picked up and is a popular alternative for people who had to get away at this time.

"Many of the Caribbean islands have similar policies and restrictions as Hawaii," she noted.

At Delta Vacations, information on reopenings, health and safety procedures, and currently popular destinations like National Parks has been placed prominently on the site, and the company has augmented its existing domestic offerings.

"With demand shifting around and so many moving parts -- not only health restrictions but the requirements of certain destinations -- we've worked to create some new tools at Delta Vacations to help travel advisors access information," Christensen said. "We want to give customers and agents the most up-to-date information so they make informed decisions."

Looking ahead, Christensen said they are seeing clear interest in travel and pent-up demand from those who had to scuttle their travel plans in the last few months.

"A lot of people want to go and have money to spend. Whether their trip was postponed or they were saving for a new trip," she said. "We're definitely seeing demand for 2021 travel, although it's still not as high as advanced bookings would normally be pre-Covid."

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