Has the Hawaiian tourism industry lost its importance?


The last few weeks of November have been particularly cruel for Hawaii’s tourism industry. At a time when the industry was starting to recover thanks to Governor David Ige’s pre-travel testing program that avoids 14-day quarantine travelers, the governor delivered a double blow to the industry.

First, on November 18, Ige changed the rules of the program, which shocked hospitality executives: travelers who did not have a negative test on arrival were forced to remain incarcerated for 14 days, even if the test found the traveler did not have one the virus when the result came.

Locals and visitors alike enjoyed a November sunset at a Waikiki pavilion during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

The day after Thanksgiving, Ige gave the go-ahead to Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami to unsubscribe from the program and quarantine all travelers for 14 days, regardless of whether they passed a test that said they were free from COVID-19 are.

Ige and Kawakami’s moves weren’t the first time during the pandemic that officials treated one of the state’s most influential industries with clear disrespect. All of this begs an overarching question: Has Hawaii‘s tourism industry lost some of its clout?

“It is a fair question to investigate this question,” 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 don’t see this as dissent,” said Keith Vieira, a hotel consultant who previously worked with Starwood Hotels and Resorts hotels in Hawaii and French Polynesia. “I just consider it bad leadership.”

Some government officials don’t look beyond public health issues, he said, and don’t see the long-term damage the tourism industry is suffering. Many of the jobs that are being cut at island hotels are management positions, not the types typically at risk during normal ups and downs, and many of them are unlikely to be returning anytime soon.

Vieira praised Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who founded the Safe Travels program, for trying to balance public health and economic recovery. But he said Green was an exception.

“I don’t know anyone other than Green who has spoken to tourism officials regularly,” he said.

Ige has supported Safe Travels, albeit with a loyalty that fluctuates more than tourism managers would like. Additionally, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced last month a long-awaited partnership with platforms like Airbnb and VRBO to crack down on illegal vacation rentals on Oahu that hotels have long wanted.

In addition, the House of Representatives Special Committee formed by Spokesperson Scott Saiki on Economic and Financial Preparedness for COVID-19 holds bi-monthly briefings that include regular presentations from business executives, including those from the tourism industry.

Ige, who usually builds consensus before making decisions, hasn’t said why he hasn’t consulted tourism industry executives before tweaking the travel program.

Still, local politicians don’t seem to see any reason to bow to – or even help – the tourism industry.

Kauai and Honolulu pushed for two tests, quarantine, delayed opening

In the hustle and bustle of Kauai’s exit from the Safe Travels program, for example, it is often lost that the Honolulu City Council wanted Oahu to do what Kawakami wanted Kauai: a system of two tests combined with a quarantine period. Honolulu City Council even based its resolution on some of the same medical experts who drive Kauai’s policy. Honolulu‘s move called for Oahu’s opening to be postponed until a two-test-plus-quarantine system could be put in place.

The current Safe Travels plan only requires a negative test result 72 hours before travelers leave for Hawaii.

The city council unanimously voted to pass the measure, introduced by Councilor Tommy Waters just days before Safe Travels went into effect on October 15, Hawaii Restaurant Association.

Honolulu city council chair Ann Kobayashi said if the tourism industry loses influence, residents may have begun to believe the industry was too big long before the pandemic.

The outgoing chairwoman of Honolulu City Council, Ann Kobayashi.
Although Honolulu City Council Chairman Ann Kobayashi voted for action to halt Hawaii’s safe travel program and implement a two-test protocol, she said Governor David Ige should help implement the one-test program that the state had decided to be consistent. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

For example, a 2018 survey by the Hawaii Tourism Authority showed that only 59% of residents thought tourism had more benefits than problems, up from 78% in 2009, and two-thirds thought the islands would “For tourists at the expense of the local people”, compared to 49% in 2009.

And that was before the record year 2019, when more than 10 million visitors visited Hawaii.

“That’s why tourism has lost some of its clout: because people hate tourism,” said Kobayashi, who voted for the measure, which required two tests and a quarantine on Oahu.

At the same time, Kobayashi called for more consistent leadership. In the end, Caldwell disagreed with the advice and Ige proceeded with a one-test plan. It is time to implement that first plan, she said.

“I hate to say we don’t have a leader who does that,” she said. “We need a leader who will bring us all together and then move on. Once you’ve made that decision, we need to move forward. But we went back and forth and up and down and back and forth. And it’s not good. “

Crowded Diamond Head Staircase to the Lookout.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, hordes of tourists populating attractions like the Diamond Head Monument had sparked a backlash from residents. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

Mufi Hannemann, a former Honolulu mayor who now heads the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said another factor plays a role: Opponents of tourism now have a stronger voice and can organize themselves through social media. On the other hand, there is no longer any brazen and powerful supporter like the late US Senator Daniel Inouye.

Hannemann said he understands island mayors want autonomy, a principle known as the Home Rule. But Hannemann said the governor should also push back.

“Here the governor really has to intervene and the mayors agree as much as possible,” said Hannemann.

In a statement, Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong said: “The governor is in constant contact with the mayors of the county and meets every other day to discuss their concerns, needs, suggestions and a variety of topics.”

Economist: $ 10 billion Fed funds bought fake welfare

It may seem easy to face a large industry with around 30,000 pre-pandemic passengers arriving every day and so much work – the pre-COVID unemployment rate was around 2% – that anyone looking for a job could find one. But what is it now?

Bonham says one problem is that things may not seem as bad as they are because the federal government has pumped billions of dollars into Hawaii. In this context, it is easy to neglect the industry.

“There is definitely a false sense of wellbeing,” he said.

“You live in an economy that has $ 10 billion in federal funds in circulation,” he said. “On December 31st, 70,000 people will lose their unemployment benefits.”

And he said private industry may need to provide the safety net.

“It’s like no one is talking about the fact that there is no guarantee of another federal stimulus,” he said.

The “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of their CHANGE Framework project.

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