Flurry of blows to tourism

  • CHRIS TATUM

The shutdown of a major cruise line in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is salt in the wounds of many struggling tourism-related businesses in Hawaii.

On Thursday, Princess Cruises announced that it will suspend all cruise operations worldwide until May 10 in response to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, which had previously spread throughout two Princess Cruise ships over the last month.

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“By taking this bold action of voluntarily pausing the operations of our ships, it is our intention to reassure our loyal guests, team members and global stakeholders of our commitment to the health, safety and well-being of all who sail with us, as well as those who do business with us, and the countries and communities we visit around the world,” said Princess Cruises CEO Jan Swartz in a statement.

The shutdown comes after more than 700 people were infected on the Diamond Princess last month, and 21 more were confirmed cases were found on the Grand Princess earlier this week.

With nine Princess Cruises port calls scheduled for OVERSET FOLLOWS:Hawaii between Thursday and May 10, the shutdown means potentially about 25,000 visitors will no longer be visiting the state’s harbors.

“I can tell you, we’re all really depressed here,” said Jay Trombley, co-owner of Keikana Tours, which operates the ubiquitous Hoppa-On Hoppa-Off bus service in Hilo. “It’s hard to have a positive attitude with all of this.”

Because the Hoppa-On Hoppa-Off buses only operate on cruise ship days, the Princess shutdown especially impacts Keikana Tours.

Trombley said he expects other cruise lines in Hawaii will follow Princess Cruises’ lead.

Two other cruise lines also announced similar shutdowns this week, although neither offered service to Hawaii. Europe-centric river and ocean cruise operator Viking River Cruises announced a shutdown until May 1 on Wednesday, while new cruise line Virgin Voyages announced Thursday that it will postpone the maiden voyage of its first ship from March 26 to Aug. 7.

But the loss of Princess Cruises is just one piece of the blow to tourism caused by the pandemic.

“It’s not the biggest piece of bad news we’ve had in the last few weeks,” said Jason Cohn, vice president of marketing for tour company Hawaii Forest and Trail.

Cohn said Hawaii Forest and Trail serves Princess Cruises at three ports statewide — Hilo, Kailua-Kona and Honolulu — and will therefore lose 22 cruise days between Thursday and May 10. But the business is already suffering the effects of a worldwide decline in air travel.

“We’ve survived a number of national disasters and nationwide calamities in the 26 years we’ve been here,” Cohn said. “This is as bad as anything we’ve seen. I’ve no doubt that we’ll survive, but there will be massive repercussions for our entire industry.”

The House Select Committee on COVID-19 met on Thursday in Honolulu to discuss the statewide economic impacts caused by the virus.

At the meeting, Chris Tatum, president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, was pessimistic, saying Hawaii traditionally has weaker visitation during a presidential election year even in the best of times.

Tatum said the HTA’s focus is currently mitigating the spread of the virus, but urged the committee to consider how to provide sick leave support to smaller visitor-focused businesses.

“The industry produces $17 billion in revenue, and we know we have a responsibility to support that going forward,” Tatum said. “But right now, the focus is making sure we’re part of the same team and working on impacting the spread of the virus.”

Carl Bonham, an economics professor executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said the state should prepare for the worst.

“The short-term economic effects will overwhelm the state’s ability to counteract them,” Bonham said, adding he expects hotel occupancy to drop by 30% to 40% from an average of 80%, while tourism industry workers will soon start losing their jobs and taking pay cuts.

Peter Ingram, president of Hawaiian Airlines, said at the meeting that a marketing push selling Hawaii as a place that can offer a range of unique experiences for visitors might help mitigate the loss of air travelers.

Bank of Hawaii President Peter Ho agreed, saying the crisis is an opportunity to solidify the state’s brand to make it more attractive to travelers both now and, more importantly, in the future when the disease is under control.

But with the tourism industry — which supports, in one way or another, approximately 19% of workers statewide — wavering, others urged research into other industries that support the state in its place.

Mark Perriello, president of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, suggested the state’s fledgling hemp industry could be expanded to pick up tourism’s slack, but also asked the state Legislature to reconsider a host of progressive bills that could impact businesses such as a carbon tax, paid family leave and minimum wage increases.

In the meantime, while fewer humans are traveling through Hawaii’s ports and airports, shipping supply chains have not been noticeably disrupted, said Kuuhaku Park, vice president of government and commercial relations for shipping company Matson Inc.

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Lauren Zirbel, executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association, agreed, saying she anticipates no shortages in essential food supplies. However, she repeatedly urged residents to not attempt to hoard supplies, as such actions are counterproductive in helping communities prepare for the virus.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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