HTA survey: Visitors satisfied with Hawaii trips, despite COVID limitations

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Papaikou is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

Most visitors to the state in late December and early January were satisfied with their experience, despite the limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a survey conducted by the Hawaii Tourism Authority between Dec. 21 and Jan. 4, nearly 90% of visitors to the state reported “excellent” satisfaction with their visit.

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Of the respondents who were unsatisfied with their trip, 39% said their dissatisfaction was rooted in the lack of available activities in the midst of the pandemic.

Only 29% of respondents claimed they were able to do all of the things they wanted to do during their trip, with the majority citing various COVID effects as reasons they had to skip certain activities.

Nearly every respondent said they were aware of the state’s pre-arrival testing protocols before leaving their home state; less than 1% of respondents were unaware. On the other hand, 21% reported “issues” during their pre-arrival screenings and, of those who were unsatisfied with their visit, 27% said the state’s COVID-related mandates are confusing.

The predominant issue visitors had with the state’s testing policies is the 72-hour window required for testing — in order to skip a 10-day quarantine upon arrival, travelers can submit negative results from a COVID test taken no more than 72 hours before arriving, which many respondents said is an unreasonably short window. Another common complaint was about the difficulty in finding trusted partners.

Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said that travel partners on the West Coast especially have been overwhelmed by the volume of travelers and take longer to process results. While there are fewer partners on the East Coast, they produce results more quickly, he said.

Birch said that, based on his discussions with visitors, the testing process is the primary thing keeping people from visiting the Big Island, because they worry they won’t get timely results to avoid quarantine, and, even if they do, there’s a dearth of available activities.

The HTA report did not break down responses by county. But Birch said he does not believe that visitors have any preference, one way or the other, regarding Hawaii County’s more stringent travel policies — a post-arrival COVID test is required — compared to the rest of the state.

“In the beginning, it was a challenge, but I think it’s been working to our advantage,” Birch said. “It’s a bit more reassuring, more affirming to people, and it’s keeping them out of quarantine.”

Unfortunately, even as visitors return, it might take more time for businesses to do the same.

“A lot of these businesses just can’t operate on 10-15% capacity,” Birch said. “If you have a tour operator with a bus that holds 20 people and he only can host 4-6 passengers, then the numbers just don’t work out.”

Birch said there must be a certain level of “business opportunity” for some businesses to return, and that level will likely only be reached gradually as visitors return. So far, he added, the resumption of volcanic activity on Kilauea has not translated to an increase in visitors, although he said that could still happen in the future when people on the mainland realize that the eruption is not immediately dangerous.

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Not that danger appears to be a primary concern for visitors: 56% of respondents said Hawaii’s relatively low infection rate had little to no impact on their decision to travel here, and 24% have no intention of taking a COVID-19 vaccine.

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

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