Tourism leaders urge Ige to declare it’s OK to visit Hawaii

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A couple from California in July reads over a sign on the Sulfur Banks Trail at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. On Monday, 19,920 trans-Pacific passengers arrived at Hawaii’s airports, 1,889 of them in Kailua-Kona and just 83 in Hilo. That compares to 26,027 trans-Pacific passengers arriving in Hawaii on Monday, Aug. 23 — 2,797 of them in Kona and 137 in Hilo.

By JOHN BURNETT

Hawaii Tribune-Herald

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The president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association said Hawaii’s visitor industry is “in jeopardy if we don’t get a positive statement soon from the governor that we’re ready to open up again.”

Mufi Hannemann made the comment Wednesday during a livestream. He was referring to an Aug. 23 statement by Gov. David Ige who said, “It is not a good time to travel to the islands,” because of the high rate of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations at that time.

Ige at that time also asked residents to curtail travel except for essential business purposes.

“We obviously have seen a dip in visitors,” Hannemann said. “If the intention of the announcement that was made on Aug. 23 was to slow travel to Hawaii, it has occurred, and then some. Occupancy rates of 80 to 90% over the summer now is around 50 — and some even reporting 40% overall occupancy rate. We know that the airlines are not bringing in as many people. A high of 225,000 on a weekly basis over the summer is down to 150,000, or even less. “

On Monday, 19,920 trans-Pacific passengers arrived at Hawaii’s airports, 1,889 of them in Kailua-Kona and just 83 in Hilo. That compares to 26,027 trans-Pacific passengers arriving in Hawaii on Monday, Aug. 23 — 2,797 of them in Kona and 137 in Hilo.

“A positive statement soon is critical in order to get travel back in Hawaii in a safe way,” said Jeff Wagoner, president and CEO of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, during the same livestream. “… Clearly, when a statement like (Ige’s Aug. 23 pronouncement) is released, it was national media. It was the top of Yahoo, it was in the New York Times, Washington Post — everywhere across the entire country, that message was heard. And very quickly, we had cancellations that surpassed, by far, bookings.

“… I think we were going to see a lull in September due to some of the seasonality trends, but that statement really plummeted occupancy across the entire industry.”

When Ige made his announcement on Aug. 23, the state Department of Health reported 571 new COVID-19 cases statewide in a surge driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant, with an average of 674 new cases reported daily that week.

That put a strain on the state’s health care resources, and a record 29 COVID-positive patients were hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center at that time.

Those numbers have been trending downward as of late.

On Wednesday, the DOH reported 168 new cases statewide, 34 of them on Hawaii Island. There were 20 COVID-positive cases hospitalized on the Big Island. According to the DOH, the seven-day daily average of new cases was 229 statewide and 47 in Hawaii County.

DOH data indicates 69% of Hawaii’s residents statewide are fully vaccinated, with 65% of Hawaii County’s residents fully vaccinated.

“The signs are pointing in the right direction in terms of making sure we are getting a positive message out there, positive results on the health side. But now, it’s time to look at the economic health of our community,” Hannemann said.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Big Island emergency room physician, predicted Monday “that in two weeks or two and a half weeks, the mayors will come together and decide that most restrictions should be dropped, because counts should be much lower than they are today and very manageable in the hospitals.”

Hannemann said he’s “highly optimistic” Ige will soon make an announcement welcoming visitors to Hawaii.

According to Hannemann, the governor has been receiving feedback from a coalition of visitor industry and business groups detailing their losses since Ige’s Aug. 23 statement.

“We continue to be very dependent on tourism,” he said. “As our coalition is trying to prove, it’s not just hotels and airlines, it’s small businesses across the board. … I’m very hopeful that the governor has had discussions with many of our industry leaders, and he recognizes the importance of him sending out a welcoming message, once again, that Hawaii’s open and ready to embrace folks.

“… Industry leaders across the board … are optimistic, enthusiastic, and they care about the people — and they want to put them back to work as soon as possible.”

Both Hannemann and Wagoner pointed to DOH statistics that trace less than 1% of Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases to viral transmission by out-of-state visitors.

“I think that tourists are safe travelers,” Wagoner said. “We know that they’re vaccinated. We know that they have had a test before they get here. … We want to welcome them back, and we really want them back soon. That message coming out this week or in the next few days would be spectacular for our state for the rest of this year.

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“… We just need a very simple statement that Hawaii’s open for travel. And we want you to travel safe, and we want you to travel smart, but we’re open. … We don’t need a statement that’s confusing. We need a very clear statement.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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