Gov. David Ige is optimistic that the Covid-19 situation in Hawaii is improving enough to encourage tourists back for this year’s holiday season.
It’s a reversal of the governor’s stance a month ago, when he asked tourists to stay away from the islands as the delta variant surged and contributed to overburdening hospital resources.
But Hawaii is in a different situation now.
In response to a question about holiday travel on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program, Ige said he anticipates that the state would feel comfortable by then opening up to visitors.
“We are on a good path today,” the governor said. He pointed to dropping case counts and the possibility that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could soon authorize Covid-19 vaccines for children under 12.
“I am hopeful that we will release more restrictions and be able to invite those who are vaccinated back to the islands. We do know it’s important to our economy and important to getting everyone back to work,” Ige said.
On Monday, Hawaii reported 255 new cases, with a seven-day average of 339, down 40% from two weeks ago. The number of Covid-positive patients in intensive care beds is also down from a high of 100 in late August to 62 on Friday.
Just three weeks ago, most Oahu ICUs were at or beyond capacity and health care workers were preparing to open make-shift facilities in large tents outside hospitals to accommodate patients.
In the past several months, hundreds of nurses and other professionals have flown to the islands to aid in the Covid response.
The state would be more welcoming of visitors once those tents come down and the workers return home.
“We are working on the messaging. And when we see the case counts drop, things get back to normal, we don’t need additional workers in the health care system, and we can take down the tents at the hospitals – then certainly we would be more aggressive and active in encouraging visitors to return, especially those that are vaccinated,” Ige said.
Ige’s announcement last month that tourists should cancel bookings sent ripples across businesses including hotels, restaurants and airlines, according to Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.
Hannemann said that Ige’s statements on Monday are a positive sign. But the industry needs a solid return date to plan for, especially when it comes to international travelers, like those from Japan.
“In travel, everything is future bookings,” Hannemann said. “And the kind of traveler we want to see come here is business-oriented. That quality traveler is used to planning in advance where they will stay, they have an itinerary of what they want to do. They also want to know for sure what’s open, what’s available.”
That means visitors, and the businesses they frequent, need to know when restrictions on gathering sizes could be lifted.
While domestic visitor arrivals have been in a slump that began in July, Hawaii is heading into a period of the year that has traditionally been slower for tourism. At the same time, international flights, specifically those from Japan, are still far below 2019 levels, according to state visitor data.
“Full recovery cannot occur if we don’t have international travelers,” Ige said, while also noting the need to better manage tourism.
Hannemann estimates that international arrivals make up about 35% of the market that has yet to come back in full force.
Ige said the problem for passengers from those countries flying to Hawaii has been dealing with their own governments’ regulations when returning home. He is trying to work with the foreign government agencies to smooth regulations.
While Hawaii’s economic outlook still appears cloudy, the state’s gross domestic product could reach 2019 levels sometime in 2022 if holiday travel picks up again, according to an “optimistic” projection detailed in a recent report from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.
During the Star-Advertiser interview, viewers asked when business restrictions will be lifted.
Ige urged patience “for another two, four, six weeks.”
The same factors that would determine when visitors should be welcomed back would also be used to decide when to lift restriction on businesses.
Though Hawaii’s situation has improved, Ige said he’d like to see lower case counts and pointed out that many ICUs are still close to capacity. He wants to avoid a situation where the health care system is overwhelmed and starts rationing care to patients.
That factored in to why the governor is still refusing to allow fans to attend University of Hawaii sport events.
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Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.