The last weeks of November have been particularly cruel for the Hawaiian tourism industry. At a time when the industry was starting to recover thanks to Governor David Ige’s pre-travel testing program that allows travelers to avoid a 14-day quarantine, the governor has dealt 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 arrival would have to stay locked in for 14 days, even if the test indicated that the traveler did not have the virus when the result came in.
Then, the day after Thanksgiving, Ige gave the green light to Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami to withdraw from the program and demand that all travelers quarantine for 14 days, whether or not they passed a test indicating that they were free of COVID-19.
Ige and Kawakami’s rulings were not the first times during the pandemic that officials have treated one of the state’s most influential industries with a marked lack of deference. All of this raises an overarching question: Has Hawaii’s tourism industry lost its influence?
“That’s a good question to explore,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization. “A lot has changed during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the changes will be permanent.”
“I don’t consider it dissing,” said Keith Vieira, a hotel consultant who previously oversaw Starwood Hotels and Resorts properties in Hawaii and French Polynesia. “I consider that to be bad leadership.”
Some government officials don’t look beyond public health issues, he said, and fail to see the long-term damage the tourism industry is suffering. Many of the jobs cut at island hotels are management positions, not the types normally at risk during normal ups and downs, and many of them are unlikely to return any time soon.
Vieira praised Lieutenant Governor 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 has spoken to tourism officials on a regular basis,” he said.
Ige has backed Safe Travels, albeit with more wavering loyalty than tourism leaders would like. Besides, 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, the kind of thing hotels have long wanted.
In addition, the House Select Committee on Economic and Fiscal Preparedness for COVID-19, formed by Chairman Scott Saiki, hosts bi-monthly briefings that regularly include presentations from business leaders, including those from the tourism industry.
Ige, who normally builds consensus before making decisions, did not explain why he did not consult with tourism industry leaders before tweaking the travel program.
Yet local politicians seem to see no reason to bow to the tourism industry – or even help it.
Kauai and Honolulu pushed for two tests, quarantine, delayed opening
For example, often lost in the hubbub over Kauai’s removal from the Safe Travels program, the Honolulu City Council wanted for Oahu the same thing Kawakami wanted for Kauai: a two-test system combined with a quarantine period. The Honolulu City Council even based its resolution on some of the same medical experts pushing Kauai’s policy. The Honolulu measure planned to delay the opening of Oahu until a two-test-plus-quarantine system could be established.
The current Safe Travels plan only requires one negative test result 72 hours before travelers depart for Hawaii.
The city council voted unanimously to adopt the measurewhich was introduced by Councilman Tommy Waters just days before Safe Travels comes into effect on October 15. In passing the measure, the council ignored opposition from major tourism players like the Koolina Resort and the Hawaii Restaurant Association.
Honolulu City Council President Ann Kobayashi said if the tourism industry is losing some of its influence, residents may have begun to believe the industry had become too big long before the pandemic hit. .
For example, a 2018 resident sentiment survey by the Hawaii Tourism Authority showed that only 59% of residents believed tourism had brought more benefits than harm, down from 78% in 2009. and two-thirds thought the islands were “run for tourists at the expense of local people”, up from 49% in 2009.
And that was before the record year of 2019, in which visitors to Hawaii topped 10 million.
“That’s why tourism has lost some of its weight: because people have come to hate tourism,” said Kobayashi, who voted for the measure requiring two tests and a quarantine period on Oahu.
At the same time, Kobayashi called for more consistent leadership. In the end, Caldwell disagreed with the advice, and Ige went ahead with a one-test plan. It is time to implement this 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. Once you’ve made that decision, we have to keep moving forward. But we went back and forth, up and down, back and forth. 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 the ability to organize through the media. social. On the other side, he said, there is no longer a shameless and powerful supporter like the late United States Senator Daniel Inouye.
Hannemann said he understands island mayors wanting to have autonomy, a principle known as home rule. But Hannemann said the governor should also push back.
“That’s where the governor really needs to step 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 mayors of the county, meeting every other day to discuss their concerns, needs, proposals and various issues. “.
Economist: $10 Billion in Fed Funds Bought Fake Welfare
It might seem easy to oppose a big industry with around 30,000 passenger arrivals every day before the pandemic and so abundant work – the pre-COVID unemployment rate was around 2% – that anyone who wanted a job could find one. But what about now?
Bonham says one problem is that things might not look as bad as they do because the federal government has pumped billions of dollars into Hawaii. In this context, he said, it can be easy to overlook the industry.
“There’s definitely a false sense of well-being,” he said.
“You live in an economy with $10 billion in federal money floating around,” he said. “On December 31, there will be 70,000 people who will lose their unemployment benefits.”
And, he said, private industry may have to provide the backstop.
“It’s like no one is talking about the fact that there’s 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 its CHANGE Framework project.