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State welcomes back vaccinated tourists, but it will take industry time to make up for lost ground

Published: Oct. 31, 2021 at 5:06 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 1, 2021 at 10:10 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After Hawaii Gov. David Ige asked tourists to stay home in August, statewide visitor arrivals plunged 30% the following month.

Part of it was due to a seasonal slowdown.

But potential tourists were also worried that further restrictions — or even a lockdown — might be implemented during their trips.

“We’ve taken a big hit in September, October with a messaging saying this is not the time to come to Hawaii,” said Mufi Hannemann, CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.

But with Ige calling on vaccinated tourist to return last week, Hannemann said business is beginning to pick up again.

“We’re actually seeing that it’s actually going to pick up in late November going into December. But obviously, we would have like to see happen sooner,” he said.

Hannemann and other tourism officials said the governor’s announcement — along with Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s decision last week to loosen restrictions on mass gatherings and businesses — are raising optimism in an industry devastated for the past two years by the pandemic.

“I think all of these things happening are pointing us in the right direction so these (companies) can get back to business and employees can get back to work,” said Keith Vieira, longtime hotel industry executive and head of KV & Associates Hospitality Consulting.

Vieira and Hannemann said it will still take time for all of the hotel and restaurant jobs to come back since the big spending Japanese tourists haven’t returned yet.

According to the state’s Safe Travels data dashboard, there were more upcoming registered trips into the islands Monday than the previous week.

Airlines, however, said they are not expecting a flood of incoming arrivals at first.

”It’s not going to be like flipping a switch,” said Avi Mannis, the senior vice president of marketing for Hawaiian Airlines.

“I don’t think we’re going to go back to the same level of visitors that we had in the peak periods of the spring and the summer. But we expect some improving bookings over the next couple of months, we expect a relatively busy holiday season.”

John De Fries, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said easing COVID restrictions is also key to helping tourism recover.

“We anticipate that restrictions on gathering, indoor gatherings, outdoor gatherings will also be relaxed,” De Fries said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said there’s little risk to reopening Hawaii tourism given the high vaccination rates in Hawaii and the low case counts.

“We’re at a low of 69 people in the hospital. That’s down 85% at our peak. We’re down 90% from our peak in active cases,” said Green.

One tourism expert said Hawaii will be able to advantage of its reputation as a safe destination.

Jerry Agrusa, a professor in the University of Hawaii’s School of Travel Industry Management, said competing destinations like Mexico have a much lower vaccination rate than Hawaii.

“Their vaccination rates are very, very low — and so is the Caribbean,” said Agrusa.

“As a safer destination, we can charge a premium price .... and I think that the future is looking very bright.”

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