Hawaii tourism

What could the delta variant mean for Hawaiian tourism?

For much of the pandemic, the state of Hawaii had the highest unemployment rate in the nation, largely due to declining tourism. Then this summer, as more and more people got vaccinated, tourism picked up so much that the mayor of maui asked fewer visitors come to the island. Now the delta variant is spreading to Hawaii, and the governor reinstated some interior capacity restrictions.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Manu Powers, who co-owns the Sea Quest Hawaii boat tour company with her husband in Kona. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Rysdal: OK, so let’s see. Here we are sitting at the end of August. We spoke nine, eight months ago, in January. It was grim, I think it’s safe to say. How was your summer, maybe better?

Manu Powers: Starkly different, let’s put it this way – bordering on madness, in fact. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the increase in tourism in Hawaii. And despite the fact that we were held at 50% [capacity] and understaffed, we were still breaking sales records from February to July. And we’re poised for the biggest year we’ve had in our 34-year history. So minimal staff, minimal capacity, minimal inventory and yet we’re blowing our sales records, pardon the pun.

Rysdal: Very well. Alright, but tell me about that exact moment right now, because things have changed a bit for all of you over the past six weeks.

Powers: Yeah, hugely. You know, I own a business, I own a small business. I’m expected to make the best decisions I can with the information I have to grow my business strategically and thoughtfully. It is now impossible. So we’re just waiting a bit. It was very hard to step back, wasn’t it, to see that light at the end of the tunnel so close we could reach out and touch it. And then be sent back through the tunnel entrance.

Rysdal: Those of us who are not business owners, you hear among the population great expressions of frustration that this is where we are after people did the vaccine and the masking, the distancing, and now we are back in a way. Are you frustrated? Are you angry? What are you?

Powers: I’m beyond frustrated, to tell you the truth. We really feel responsible for [the] community. We were born and raised here. We are raising three children here. We own and operate a business here with, you know, close to 50 employees. We are responsible for the safety of our staff, our children. And yet, we still want to contribute financially to our community. And our hands are tied.

Rysdal: There was some concern, I think, when we spoke in January about whether you were even going to make it. Are you still worried about this?

Powers: Yeah, absolutely. Only because we could very well be closed again next month as far as we know. Are we staying true to the business model? Once again, we are witnessing record sales. But all of that could disappear again tomorrow, and we could burn through the cash reserves we have very quickly, as we learned the hard way in 2020. I just see this very uncertain path ahead of us. And this equals great stress at home, in marriage and in business. And, you know, luckily we’re managing for now.

Rysdal: It’s none of my business, but it looks like you and your husband have invested everything in this business. And I can only imagine that the last year and more has opened your eyes to the fact that maybe you should branch out a bit.

Powers: Yeah, I think we talked about it. That was my word for 2021: “diversification”. I was going to have a pin made and wear it all day, every day to remind myself, “There are a lot of eggs in one basket. So we’re always looking for ways to do that. But it’s hard to make those purchases, it’s hard to invest that money when you don’t know if you’re going to need it to put food on the table, you know, six months from now.