Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program hasn’t had the same boost in arrivals from Japan — the state’s largest international market — as it has for those from the continental United States, data shows. 

Safe Travels brought 183,400 domestic travelers to Hawaii in the first month after it started on Oct. 15, but only 1,350 from Japan in the month since Hawaii opened to Japan on Nov. 6.

That’s about 100 times less than the average number of visitors from Japan in a month in 2019.

Browse Safe Travels data on the state’s data dashboard.

It has been a challenge to bring back Japanese travelers, Gov. David Ige told the Civil Beat editorial board earlier this month. The reason, in short: Hawaii gets a bad rap because it’s lumped in with the mainland as a COVID-19 hot spot even though the number of positive cases has remained relatively stable in the islands.

“The United States of America is on a no-fly list for virtually the entire planet,” Ige said.

Many countries have restrictions on travel to and from the U.S., including Japan, which requires returning passengers to test negative for COVID-19 and quarantine for 14 days.

Ige said Hawaii and Japanese officials are having talks about modifying the program. “I’ve requested that Hawaii be considered separately from the rest of the United States,” he added.

Governor David Ige nominates Judge Eddins to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Gov. David Ige says he wants Japan to consider Hawaii separately from the rest of the U.S. when it comes to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But for now the fact remains that only one side of the door is fully open. The barriers that exist on the other side, including having to quarantine upon return, make it hard for people in Japan to come to Hawaii during this time.

“If I couldn’t telework, I wouldn’t have come,” said Matt Morita, an engineer originally from Aiea who lives and works in Kanagawa, Japan. He arrived on Dec. 5 through the Safe Travels program for a visit home.

Upon returning in January, he will have to quarantine at his home in Japan for 14 days, but he says his work is allowing him to work from home during that time — something that may not be an option to many Japanese people looking to travel here.

“Japan is a little more old school,” Morita said. “Being able to telework from home isn’t an option that a lot of Japanese people have.”

Plus, the high cost of the tests, which must be done through approved labs that are mostly based in Tokyo, is prohibitive. His cost is 28,000 yen, or about $270. Others quoted him 30,000 to 35,000 yen — about $290 to $335.

“It’s not very cheap for a lot of people in Japan,” Morita said.

Hawaii and Japan have longstanding ties. Many residents in the islands trace their roots back to Japan, and visitors from the Asian powerhouse comprise about 15% to 17% of all of Hawaii’s tourists.

In 2019, visitors from Japan spent $2.25 billion, according to a Hawaii Tourism Authority report. They also tend to spend more money while traveling here than domestic tourists.

“Japan has always been an important major market segment for Hawaii’s visitor economy,” said Mike McCartney, director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. 

Well, that was before the pandemic, which has left gaping holes where these statistics once stood.

DEBDT Director Mike McCartney during COVID19 press conference. June 24, 2020
DBEDT Director Mike McCartney says attracting international travelers again is going to be a slow process. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Safe Travels attempted to fill some of those holes, but 1,350 in a month is about 1% of the 131,500 or so people who arrived in November 2019. Still, that’s more than the 183 people who came from Japan in the entire month of October this year, or 79 in September.

“We’re behind,” McCartney said. “I think that’s because of the unpredictability of the unprecedented second wave of the virus.”

While vaccines signal hope for a return to some level of normalcy soon, COVID-19 is still raging around the world.

Japan, which has had nearly 182,000 cases thus far, is designated a Level 4 risk country by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning the risk of coronavirus is “very high” and people shouldn’t travel there.

Canada — another Safe Travels partner due to start in mid-December — was also given that designation. Hawaii partnered up with airlines — Air Canada and WestJet — to offer pre-arrival testing. However, Canada also requires travelers returning from the U.S. to quarantine.

McCartney said bringing in international visitors is going to be a slow and gradual process.

Just because Hawaii is open, that doesn’t mean all of the attractions, services and amenities are open, he said. People are still navigating how to live with the pandemic’s restrictions.

“This is a challenging time for the businesses and the people who are unemployed,” he said. “But we’ve got to be safe right now.”

For months to come, we’re not likely to see any great boosts in the number of international travelers arriving, McCartney said.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s booking pace reports, which include travel agency data and airline transactions, show fewer than 1,600 travelers from Japan and about 3,500 from Canada have booked travel here for December — usually one of the busiest travel times because of the holidays.

It will be a while until vaccines are distributed and more people are comfortable traveling again, he said. But Hawaii should be ready for when that time comes.

“We’re focused right now on making sure we’re safe,” McCartney said.

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