Tourism executives are taking a “wait and see” approach as the specter of the omicron variant raises new concerns about a tourism recovery in the first half of 2022, which before the variant emerged was shaping up as equal to 2018.

After dwindling to virtually nil during the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a strict quarantine order kept travelers away, passenger arrivals have rebounded in recent weeks to levels approaching those before the pandemic.

According to the latest available data from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the seven-day average for passenger arrivals on Dec. 22 was 32,138,  about 80% of what Hawaii posted during the same week in 2019, which was a record year.

Kalakaua Avenue was packed with pedestrians despite a recent uptick in Covid-19 cases in Hawaii. January 27, 2021
Kalakaua Avenue in the heart of Waikiki was packed with pedestrians on Monday, as visitor arrivals continue to flirt with pre-pandemic levels. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Jerry Gibson, president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, said hotels generally have fared well over Christmas, although he acknowledged this year’s holiday season has hardly set any records.

Still, Gibson said, bookings for the first two quarters of 2022 appear to be on par with 2018.

The question now concerns the omicron variant. The industry has shifted to a “wait and see” stance, he said, because of “concerns about both the omicron numbers and the possibility of any flight cancellations.”

Thousands of flights have been delayed or cancelled across the U.S. as a result of winter weather and large numbers of pilots and flight crews sickened by the highly contagious variant.

But so far, the cancellations haven’t affected Hawaii much. According to the website, there were seven flights cancelled today at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport: four by United, two by Alaska and one by Delta. That compared to 1,268 within, into or out of the U.S. as a whole, FlightAware reported.

Hawaii’s dominant carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, has managed to avoid cancelling large numbers of flights.

“We had a relatively small number of cancellations over the Christmas weekend,” Hawaiian spokeswomen Marissa Villegas said in an email.

The carrier cancelled five neighbor island flights and one transpacific flight on Friday because of staffing shortages, she said. The airline also cancelled two neighbor island and three transpacific flights on Saturday and one neighbor island flight on Sunday.

Hawaiian accommodated the affected passengers on other flights, she said. The airline did not expect cancellations on Monday, Villegas said.

Passenger Arrivals
Hawaii air passenger arrivals are approaching pre-pandemic levels, but tourism executives are taking a wait and see approach concerning effects of the Covid-19 omicron variant on travel. DBEDT/2021

Gibson said public officials have been in nearly daily contact with tourism industry representatives, including executives from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. At this point the consensus is that the holidays appear strong, and that, while omicron is a concern, there’s no sense that new restrictions are coming.

“We don’t have any indication that there are going to be new ones at this point,” Gibson said.

And all of this is good news for businesses that depend on tourists.

“It’s still not what it used to be, but business has definitely picked up,” said Dave Nakatani, manager of Pacific Island Beach Boys, which offers canoe rides and body boards for rent on Waikiki Beach.

A week ago, he said, the stand was making about $150 a day. On Wednesday, as the Christmas rush started, that shot to more than $1,000.

He hears the same from the other rental operators up and down the beach.

“Everybody seems to be doing well the past week,” he said.

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