Hawaii tourism

Japan helps diversify Hawaii tourism recovery

Only a few thousand visitors from Japan are expected to come to Hawaii for the rest of this year.

But that trickle is important to sustaining Hawaii’s economy, which has much of its visitor industry infrastructure built around catering to Japanese tourists.

Also, it is advantageous for the industry to have visitors from more than one market.

Tourists from the mainland began arriving in greater numbers last month. Unfortunately, the United States is now setting daily records for new coronavirus cases, which could reduce demand for travel to Hawaii.

The United States reported more than 126,000 positive cases and more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday, according to the most recent data from Johns Hopkins University.

Saturday was the fourth day in a row that new cases topped 100,000, as the country broke its own record for daily cases with almost every passing day this week.

Paul Brewbaker, director of TZ Economics, said: “It is just bad luck that we have just reopened tourism on the continent at the precise moment when this wave was building and forming. For me, there is no upside potential, only downside risks.

Brewbaker is less concerned about reopening tourism from Japan, which has a much better COVID-19 record than the United States and generally has a mask-compliant population.

“Why admit people from the mainland when it is as toxic as it is today? Why shouldn’t Asian travelers be the first to come to Hawaii? OK, maybe it was tough, but still,” Brewbaker said.

In May, the Hawaii Executive Collaboration won the blessing of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 to begin exploring a pilot “travel bubble” that would have eased travel restrictions between the two destinations. But efforts have been complicated by government restrictions on both sides and a summer spike in COVID-19 cases on the mainland and in Hawaii.

Instead, Hawaii created a pre-arrival testing program that began welcoming U.S. travelers Oct. 15. The program allowed US travelers to bypass the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine if they could provide proof of a negative nucleic acid amplification coronavirus test taken from an approved laboratory in the 72 hours after the last leg of their departure for Hawaii.

Lieutenant Governor Josh Green said between Oct. 15 and Saturday, 196,122 travelers were screened under the Safe Travels Hawaii program. No less than 132,188 of them were visitors and there were 63,934 residents.

“About 85% passed the pre-test and were exempted; only 15% went into quarantine,” Green said. “People are doing pretty well. It may not be perfect, but our state is doing more than any other to prevent the spread. »

The first Japanese visitors to participate in the state’s pre-travel testing program began arriving Friday under an agreement that allows Japanese travelers to visit Hawaii under the same program as domestic passengers.

Adding Japan to the testing program before the state arrives is part of a multi-tiered approach to reopening Hawaii’s economy safely and gradually. It should also serve as a pilot to reopen other international markets such as Canada, Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand, although all of these countries, such as Japan, have government restrictions that may hamper demand. of travel.

Attracting Japanese tourists to Hawaii will be hampered by the requirement that Japanese nationals returning from overseas trips be quarantined for 14 days upon returning home. Additionally, the Japanese government still has the United States listed under a Tier 3 travel restriction, which advises Japanese citizens to “reconsider travel” to the United States.

Friday’s flight operated by All Nippon Airways brought just 64 passengers from Japan to Hawaii. But there will be about eight flights this month from Japan, including one flight every Saturday from Hawaiian Airlines. Japan Airlines will begin bringing travelers back from Japan on Tuesday.

Eric Takahata, general manager of Hawaii Tourism Japan, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Japanese marketing contractor, said only a few thousand Japanese visitors are expected to come to Hawaii in November and December. Hawaii could end 2020 just before Japan’s 300,000 arrivals, and most of those, around 250,000, arrived in January and February before the pandemic really hit.

“They will all be free and independent travellers. Groups still cannot operate until the travel advisory is lifted,” Takahata said.

Still, the program will pave the way for rebuilding the state’s main international visitor market, which brought about 1.6 million visitors from Japan to Hawaii in 2019 and generated nearly $2.2 billion in travel spending. visitors.

There are some signs that demand will soon increase. Carriers have started adding flights and some of Japan’s group travel vendors have started planning to return group tourism to Hawaii in December.

The Japanese government has yet to say when it will lift its travel quarantine for returning residents. However, Hiroyuki “Keith” Kitagawa, President and CEO of JTB Hawaii, said the government recently announced that “business travelers residing in Japan will be exempt from self-quarantine for two weeks after returning home. in Japan as long as they comply with the prescribed security measures”. for short business trips.

“This too is another big step towards full-scale reopening,” Kitagawa said.

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said business travel between Japan and Hawaii is a relatively small segment.

“Ultimately, demand is unlikely to increase significantly until the Japanese government further relaxes its quarantine requirements for all returning travellers,” Da Silva said. “We hope that the bilateral dialogue will soon lead to a reciprocal program.”

Either way, Hawaiian is already expanding beyond the once-a-week service between Honolulu and Narita that it resumed Oct. 1 to support essential travel. With the Japan pre-trip testing program in place, Hawaiian will increase its Narita frequency to twice weekly on November 17 and four times weekly on December 19, when it will also begin three weekly nonstop flights between Honolulu and Osaka. . On December 21, Hawaiian will launch three times a week service between Honolulu and Haneda.

“Even though we are resuming more flights, our Japan-Hawaii capacity is only about 12% of our pre-pandemic schedule. It may take time for demand to return, but these additional flights reflect our strong commitment to the Japanese market,” said Da Silva.

Sam Shenkus, vice president and chief marketing officer of the Royal Hawaiian Center, said the center does not expect visitor traffic from Japan to increase significantly until the third or fourth quarter of 2021.

Admittedly, Japanese travel seller HIS is one of the few businesses that still hasn’t reopened in the center, which is now about 94% open, Shenkus said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.