The last weeks of November were particularly cruel for Hawaii’s tourism industry. At a time when the industry was starting to recover thanks to Gov. David Ige’s pre-travel test program that lets travelers sidestep a 14-day quarantine, the governor delivered the industry a double whammy.
First, on Nov. 18, Ige changed the program’s rules in a move that shocked hospitality executives: travelers without a negative test in hand upon arriving would have to stay locked up for 14 days, even if the test indicated the traveler didn’t have the virus when the result came in.
Then, the day after Thanksgiving, Ige gave Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami the green light to opt out of the program and require all travelers to quarantine for 14 days, regardless of whether they passed a test saying they were free of COVID-19.
The moves by Ige and Kawakami were hardly the first times during the pandemic that public officials have treated one of the state’s most influential industries with a marked lack of deference. It all raises an overarching question: Has Hawaii’s tourism industry lost its clout?
“It’s a fair question to explore,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. “A lot of things have changed during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the changes will be permanent.”
“I’m not looking at it as dissing,” said Keith Vieira, a hotel consultant who previously oversaw Starwood Hotels and Resorts properties in Hawaii and French Polynesia. “I’m just looking at it as poor leadership.”
Some government officials aren’t looking beyond public health issues, he said, and are failing to see the long-term damage that the tourism industry is suffering. Many jobs being eliminated at island hotels are management positions, not the types normally at risk during normal ups and downs, and many of those aren’t likely to come back soon.
Vieira commended Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who created the Safe Travels program, for trying to balance public health and economic recovery. But he said Green was an exception.
“Other than Green, I don’t know anyone who’s talked to tourism officials on a regular basis,” he said.
Ige has supported Safe Travels, although with a fidelity that’s wavered more than tourism executives want. In addition, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell last month announced a long-awaited partnership with platforms like Airbnb and VRBO to crack down on illegal vacation rentals on Oahu, the sort of thing hotels have long wanted.
Also, the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness formed by Speaker Scott Saiki holds bimonthly briefings that regularly include presentations by business executives, including those from the tourism industry.
Ige, who normally builds consensus before making decisions, has not said why he didn’t consult tourism industry executives before tweaking the travel program.
Still, local politicos appear to see no reason to bow to the tourism industry – or even help it.
For example, often lost in the hubbub about Kauai’s opting out of the Safe Travels program is that the Honolulu City Council wanted for Oahu the same thing Kawakami wanted for Kauai: a system of two tests combined with a period of quarantine. The Honolulu City Council even based its resolution on some of the same medical experts pushing Kauai’s policy. Honolulu’s measure called for delaying opening Oahu until a two-test-plus-quarantine system could be established.
The current Safe Travels plan requires just one negative test result 72 hours before travelers depart for Hawaii.
The City Council unanimously voted to pass the measure, which was introduced by Councilman Tommy Waters just days before Safe Travels went into effect on Oct. 15. In passing the measure, the council shrugged off opposition from major tourism players like the Koolina Resort and the Hawaii Restaurant Association.
Honolulu City Council Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said if the tourism industry is losing some of its clout, it might be that residents had begun to believe the industry had grown too big long before the pandemic.
For instance, a 2018 resident sentiment survey by the Hawaii Tourism Authority showed that just 59% of residents thought tourism had brought more benefits than problems, down from 78% in 2009, and two thirds thought the islands were being “run for tourists at the expense of local people,” up from 49% in 2009.
And that was before 2019’s record-setting year, during which visitors to Hawaii topped more than 10 million.
“That’s why tourism has lost some of its clout: because people have come to hate tourism,” said Kobayashi, who voted for the measure requiring two tests and a period of quarantine on Oahu.
At the same time, Kobayashi called for more consistent leadership. In the end, Caldwell disagreed with the council, and Ige went ahead with a one-test plan. It’s time to implement that initial plan, she said.
“I hate to say we don’t have a leader who does that,” she said. “We need a leader who can bring us all together and then move on that. Once you make that decision we have to keep moving forward on it. But we’ve been going back and forth, and up and down, and backwards and forwards. And it’s not good.”
Mufi Hannemann, a former Honolulu mayor who now heads the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said another factor is at play: opponents of tourism now have a stronger voice and ability to organize through social media. On the other side, he said, there’s no longer an unabashed and powerful supporter such as the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
Hannemann said he understands island mayors wanting to have autonomy, a principle known as home rule. But Hannemann said the governor also should push back.
“This is where the governor really has to come in and get the mayors to agree as much as possible,” Hannemann said.
In a statement, Ige’s spokeswoman Jodi Leong said, “The governor is in constant communication with the county mayors, meeting every other day to discuss their concerns, needs, proposals and a variety of issues.”
It may seem easy to oppose a major industry with about 30,000 passenger arrivals each day before the pandemic and such abundant work – the pre-COVID unemployment rate was about 2% — that anybody who wanted a job could find one. But what about now?
Bonham reckons one issue is that things might not seem as bad as they are because the federal government has pumped billions of dollars into Hawaii. In that context, he said, it may be easy to disregard the industry.
“There’s definitely a false sense of well-being,” he said.
“You’re living in an economy with $10 billion in federal money floating around,” he said. “Come Dec. 31, there’s going to be 70,000 people who lose their unemployment benefits.”
And, he said, private industry might have to provide the safety net.
“It’s like no one is talking about the fact that there’s no guarantee of another federal stimulus,” he said.
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