To members of a Senate committee hearing a presentation on how to restart Hawaii’s stifled tourism economy, it seemed like a promising concept: a pilot project to begin opening Hawaii to tourists by focusing on the key Japan travel market with a reciprocal relationship between the two destinations.

The presentation on the proposed “travel bubble” with Japan came on the same day Gov. David Ige said Hawaii would extend its 14-day quarantine on arriving passengers past June 30.

Ways and Means Chair Donovan M. Dela Cruz during hearing on funding emergency appropriations in response to future COVID-19 Coronavirus health concerns in Hawaii.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, said Gov. David Ige should be “working 24 hours a day to develop safe protocols for opening tourism.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The governor didn’t say how long past June 30 the extension would last, and his spokeswoman later said the extension wouldn’t be official until Ige spells it out in an order, known as a supplementary emergency proclamation.

Still, at a time when state and local revenues are beginning to run thin and federal funds that have been providing money for households and small businesses soon will run out, the governor’s statement had some nonplussed.

“I was shocked,” said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, who days before sent Ige a letter outlining the travel bubble plan. “They should be working 24 hours a day to develop safe protocols for opening tourism and at the very least take into consideration what we’re proposing with the travel bubble.”

“If you’re not going to open tourism, which is his call, you’ve got to do something to get other industries moving,” said Dela Cruz, who also is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “You can’t just do nothing; nothing is not an option.”

Japanese Visitors Spend More

During the meeting, senators expressed enthusiasm for the proposed plan, which was outlined by Paul Yonamine, chairman and chief executive of Central Pacific Financial Corp., Central Pacific Bank’s holding company. Yonamine was joined by Duane Kurisu, a Honolulu businessman, but Yonamine did almost all of the talking.

As outlined by Yonamine, the bubble would let Japanese visitors sidestep the 14-day quarantine if they volunteered to do certain things, like being tested for the virus before arriving and agreeing to use a mobile phone app that could monitor their whereabouts.

Although Japanese visitors represented only 1.6 million of Hawaii’s roughly 10 million visitors last year, Yonamine said they spent 40% more than average. Plus he said, culturally, Japanese tend to value following rules and respect for authority, which would make them likely to comply with the requirements.

Although Yonamine called for setting up a task force or panel to flesh out details, lawmakers embraced the idea so enthusiastically that they said there was no need to set up a task force and that the committee could do the work of fleshing out details.

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki called the plan a “great idea.”

Sen. Michelle Kidani added, “This would really be the best way to open up tourism in Hawaii.”

Even if the plan is not perfect, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole said, it could be a starting point or “the first draft of our exit strategy” to open up tourism.

One idea repeatedly discussed was that Japanese travelers would simply be better than those from the U.S. continent: they would spend more and follow the rules, according to the senators.

“U.S. citizens tend to not want to follow these rules,” said Sen. Donna Mercado Kim.

Keohokalole added that high-spending Japanese tourists are preferable to “wannabe Instagram influencers from the West Coast who are staying in illegal vacation rentals and blatantly violating the quarantine.”

One issue not discussed is whether such a travel bubble would be legal. A recent article in The New York Times discussed potential problems such a scheme could face under three clauses of the U.S. Constitution: the Privileges and Immunities Clause, the 14 Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the so-called “Dormant Commerce Clause,” a doctrine which prevents states from interfering with interstate commerce.

However, Keohokalole said, Hawaii might be able to avoid such issues by making the program voluntary and allowing it to apply to anyone — from Japan or elsewhere — willing to be tested, carry an app and follow other rules in order to be released early from quarantine.

In his letter to Ige, Dela Cruz pointed out how other locales had created travel bubbles: Europe’s Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for instance; and Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific.

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