June 11 – The COVID-19 testing mandate for international travelers to the United States is lifted, and while local visitor industry officials welcomed the move, they said they do not expect a dramatic increase in tourism to Hawaii.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that the requirement for international air travelers to take a COVID-19 test within a day before boarding their flights will end at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. The restriction was one of the last national mandates intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
International travel to Hawaii has mostly come to a standstill since the pandemic began in early 2020, but that’s not due to restrictions imposed by the US government. Japanese citizens, in particular, must still comply with pre- and post-travel testing requirements and quarantine upon returning home, if necessary.
Japan is Hawaii’s largest international market in terms of visitor spending. In 2019, 1.57 million Japanese visitors visited Hawaii and together they spent $2.25 billion, according to the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Visitor arrivals have plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, arrivals fell nearly 82% from 2019. This trend has continued, as seen by the 6,700 Japanese visitors who came to Hawaii in April, according to DBEDT. This is a drop of more than 94% compared to the 119,500 arrivals in April 2019.
The lifting of the U.S. mandate does not resolve the restrictions still in place in other countries, so the opinions of local industry officials on its possible impacts on tourism in Hawaii varied. But it’s generally seen as a step in the right direction.
“I view President Biden’s announcement as breaking down yet another barrier between international travelers and Hawaii,” said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. “Certainly we welcome that, but it’s not going to create … a dramatic increase overnight.”
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said the change will increase competition between Hawaii and international destinations. Pleasant Holidays sells vacation packages and cruises to regions around the world, including Hawaii.
Richards estimates that 10-15% of the company’s U.S. travelers have not traveled outside the country due to the testing requirement. Not all of those travelers were redirected to Hawaii, but some did, he said.
“I just got back from Cancun, Mexico and took the test within 24 hours. That’s a problem. It saves a lot of time this last day,” he said. “Our business is expecting a pretty big increase in international destinations now that that’s gone.”
Keith Vieira, director of KV and Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said the change would be good because it will help Hawaii’s tourism market diversify away from its reliance on the US market for most of the pandemic.
“We are better when we have a bigger mix of visitors,” he said. “Visitor spending tends to be higher, and the mix is just who we are.”
Historically, Vieira said, about a third of visitors to Hawaii have been international. Pandemic travel restrictions in the United States and their home countries have contributed to a dramatic drop in arrivals.
Sam Shenkus, marketing director of the Royal Hawaiian Center, called Biden’s decision “an incremental positive step.” She and Hannemann agreed that travel from Japan could begin to return to pre-pandemic normalcy this fall.
Meanwhile, tourism in Hawaii so far this year has almost completely rebounded from the pandemic, and that’s almost entirely due to a booming domestic market.
“The continental US market (is seeing) a double-digit increase from 2019, which was a banner year,” Shenkus said, later adding, “The continental US market is on fire. I mean, it’s crazy.”
Domestic travel to Hawaii is generally a bigger market than even Japan, and so far this year it exceeds the number of domestic visitor arrivals set in 2019, when a record 10.4 million visitors were entered the state.
More than 2.46 million Americans have visited Hawaii this year, according to the latest DBEDT reports, nearly 13.8% more than the 2.16 million who vacationed in Hawaii in the first four months of 2019.
And despite the lag in international travel, total visitor spending in Hawaii is up slightly from 2019, and again, that’s mostly driven by domestic travellers. Visitor spending in 2022 currently stands at $5.83 billion, and at this point in 2019 spending was $5.81 billion.
Canada, Hawaii’s second-largest international market for tourism, also showed signs of returning to pre-pandemic levels this year. The 150,000 visitors to Hawaii from Canada in the first four months of this year represents a 44% drop from the 270,000 visitors in the first four months of 2019, although this gap narrowed in March and april.
The 97,600 Canadian arrivals in March and April represent only a 27% drop from the 133,700 arrivals during those two months in 2019.