Nearly 20,000 visitors have arrived in Hilo since Oct. 15

  • Park ranger Ben Hayes on Oct. 14 points to different trails on a new "wayside exhibit" for visitors at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald file photo)

More than 89,000 people traveled to the Big Island since Oct. 15, when Gov. David Ige’s pre-travel testing program went into effect.

According to data provided by the state on hawaiicovid19.com, 89,447 travelers arrived at the island’s three airports between Oct. 15 and Dec. 6.

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Of those, 69,087 traveled to the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole, 19,963 arrived at Hilo International Airport, and 397 arrived at the Waimea-Kohala Airport.

It is unclear how many of those were trans-Pacific visitors or interisland travelers.

During that time period, there were 506,013 travelers statewide — 350,996 visitors and 155,017 residents.

The initial pre-travel testing program permitted trans-Pacific travelers to bypass a mandatory 14-day quarantine if they had a negative COVID-19 result from a nucleic acid amplification test taken within 72 hours of the final leg of departure.

Ige recently tightened those travel restrictions, requiring all trans-Pacific travelers to have a negative COVID-19 test result from a trusted testing partner before departing to Hawaii in order to bypass the quarantine.

That means that test results will not be accepted once the traveler arrives in Hawaii. Those who don’t have a negative test result prior to their departure to Hawaii must self-quarantine for 14 days or the length of their stay, whichever is shorter.

Additionally, those traveling to the Big Island must also take a rapid antigen test upon arrival at the airport.

According to state data, 449,175 people were exempt from the state’s mandatory two-week quarantine from Oct. 15 to Dec. 6, including 346,835 who provided a negative COVID-19 test.

The other exemptions were for a variety of reasons, including waivers given to essential workers.

After the launch of the pre-travel testing program in October, Big Island tourism started off slow, said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, but numbers doubled through November.

Because of the second test post-arrival test for trans-Pacific travelers arriving here, Birch said many hotels remained closed until November to see how that process would work.

Birch said the Big Island also had a lag in arrivals because the second post-arrival test required by Hawaii County was an extra step travelers had to take in order to visit.

Moving forward, however, he said the post-arrival testing is a good thing to confirm visitors are cleared not only with one test, but two.

And with other islands adopting their own travel policies, Birch said the Big Island is no longer the only destination with a “unique situation.”

But Ige’s additional restriction requiring trans-Pacific travelers to have a negative test result in hand before arrival or face a two-week quarantine has been a challenge for those who are traveling, Birch said.

“Many had to reschedule vacations or flights because of the timing of being able to get a test,” he said.

“The amount of cases increasing on the mainland and testing on the mainland is now restricting availability of these pre-test opportunities at the same time.”

According to Birch, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau has been taking phone calls and emails from future visitors, and a majority of the questions it receives revolve around testing and timing.

There’s a lot of confusion, too, about the many and varying rules for different islands.

“Each island has a different perspective and process, which absolutely should be unique because each island is unique,” he said.

But Birch said that does add to the confusion, and makes it difficult to convey the right message to future visitors to ensure they’re prepared.

“I think overall, our numbers are really not relative to anything we’ve seen in past history … ,” he said.

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“A slow ramp up is something I think we’re all expecting and will give us the opportunity to get all the protocols in place before we get to the higher levels of visitation.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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