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Hawaii's reopening highlights problems facing tourist destinations, but there's hope for 2021

Dec. 08, 2020
16 min read
Aerial of Honolulu Hawaii Beyond Diamond Head
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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact across the world, but perhaps no segment was as hard-hit as the travel industry. Hotels and destinations that rely on visitors — be it tourists or business travelers — faced an almost insurmountable challenge. How could they minimize the spread and resulting impacts of COVID-19 while not annihilating their local economies?

Sadly, this is a question that still faces the vast majority of the globe, as eased restrictions have led to fresh waves of infections, creating new limitations that threaten to strangle an already-anemic recovery.

And perhaps no destination has epitomized this difficult situation as clearly as the island state of Hawaii.

As we continue with Hotels & Destinations Week as part of the 2020 TPG Awards, let's take a closer look at just how challenging it is to reopen a tourism hot spot successfully — with the Aloha state as an illustrative example.

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What does it mean to "successfully" reopen?

As of now, there are zero countries with entirely open borders. Many restrict travelers from abroad, while others impose a mandatory quarantine. Still others require proof of a negative, COVID-19 PCR test within a set amount of time prior to departure (or arrival) — which can present a major hurdle in the U.S. due to testing capacity.

So, what exactly does a successful reopening look like? What does a destination need to do to win back travelers in 2021?

As a travel team, we landed on an approach that embodies three ideals.

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First and foremost, the destination should have the welfare of its residents at the forefront. We fall in love with a place not just for its natural beauty but also for its unique culture and the people we meet there. Keeping the population safe has to be the No. 1 priority.

Next, there has to be a thoughtful plan for visitors that will keep them safe while enjoying the destination. That could include everything from mandatory quarantines upon arrival to available pre-travel testing to opt-out of a quarantine situation to mandatory face-covering orders and public service announcements to reinforce social distancing requirements.

Finally, the local government, chamber of commerce and/or convention and visitors bureau should have programs in place to help local business owners get back on their feet. COVID-19 gut-punched restaurants, shops and art galleries, tour guides and all sorts of other businesses across the world. Help is needed — from the government and community — to keep small businesses going.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

And, as frustrating as it may be to the traveler that's aiming for a moving target as travel requirements change, a reopening plan has to be at least somewhat fluid and flexible because the situation on the ground changes... sometimes very quickly.

Hawaii took all of these factors into account — yet still encountered an array of hiccups.

Why Hawaii put the brakes on tourism

Pre-coronavirus when we didn't think twice about social distancing at Oahu's Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. (Photo by John Seaton Callahan/Getty Images)

Early on in the pandemic in mid-March, Hawaii knew it had to quickly curb the number of tourists visiting the islands.

No one wanted the state to shut down — including Governor David Ige, locals employed in the tourism industry and tourists. But, the nature of what makes Hawaii so special — a collection of islands in the middle of nowhere — is also its potential downfall during a pandemic.

According to Hawaii's State Health Planning and Development Agency's Health Care Utilization Report, which was updated on Jan. 15, 2020, there are 1,751 medical/surgical hospital beds across all hospitals in the state. There are only 227 acute-care beds, and on some of the individual islands, the resources are even more limited than that.

That limitation is what kept officials and doctors up at night as the novel coronavirus began infiltrating the islands. They feared if COVID-19 took hold, there wouldn't be enough hospital beds for residents or doctors and nurses to care for residents — much less for tourists who found themselves ill with no way to return home for treatment.

Those concerns initially led the Hawaiian government to implement a state-wide lockdown and strongly encourage travelers to postpone their trips — and ultimately led to a more restrictive policy. Beginning March 26, anyone entering the state (even residents) were required to quarantine for 14 days. Stiff fines and legal penalties awaited anyone who ventured out during this period.

Of course, this wasn't a long-term solution. Starved of essential tourist dollars, pressure mounted to find a way to safely welcome visitors.

Elements of Hawaii's reopening plan

After a number of delays, the state finally reopened to U.S. travelers with an option to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine on Oct. 15. However, there were a number of key measures in place meant to minimize the risk that inbound visitors would bring (and then spread) COVID-19 locally.

A negative PCR test

The first requirement? You must take a COVID-19 test before travel, and the state only accepts the nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) from a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) lab.

Not only that ... you must use a provider on the state's preapproved list. You may be turned away if the testing facility you used isn't on Hawaii's official list. And per the state's rules, you have to take the test within 72 hours of your flight departure time to the islands.

Specific airlines and airports are fully aware of Hawaii's entry requirements and can provide information about testing:

Prescreening arrivals

In addition to presenting proof of a negative PCR test, the state also implemented a pre-registration requirement known as the Safe Travels Program. Via an online form, Hawaii asks relevant health and travel questions as an initial step in its health-screening program for visitors. Once a traveler fills out the online form, he or she will receive a QR code.

Upon landing in Hawaii, the passenger needs to show that code on a smartphone or via a printout — along with the required negative test result.

This is mandatory for all visitors to sign up in advance of arrival.

Arrival health checks and COVID-19 precautions

Upon arrival, all travelers are subject to temperate screening. If the result is 100.4 degrees or higher, you'll be subject to additional health screening.

Finally, if you clear all of these requirements and can freely travel to your accommodations, you'll still need to comply with a variety of measures to safeguard the islands — including mandatory mask-wearing and limits on dining and select amenities. You're also likely to face a slimmed-down resort experience, as many amenities have been altered or cut entirely in light of the pandemic.

And these policies have teeth — as we saw from the couple that was arrested in late November after knowingly flying back home to the state after a positive COVID-19 test result.

But even with all that, as we approach the 60-day mark since reopening, it's hard to call Hawaii's reopening an overwhelming success.

The challenges of an ever-shifting pandemic

Wailua Falls, Kauai (Photo by YinYang/Getty Images)

As you can imagine, the logistical challenges for reopening a series of islands thousands of miles from the mainland — where travelers often book trips months in advance — were immense.

The state needed to communicate new testing protocols, educate visitors to pre-emptively register for the state's Safe Travels Program and explain which COVID-19 tests are valid and from what providers. The above plan was a good starting point, but how would it work in real life?

Unfortunately, pandemics don't respect plans — and issues started cropping up almost immediately.

Early on in the reopening, it wasn't clear that travelers needed to take a test at a facility specifically approved by the state. We heard from many people that took the right kind of test but at a local facility that wasn't sanctioned by Hawaii — and the state turned them away upon landing.

TPG also heard from a family that took the appropriate test, but the results hadn't come in by the time they landed in Hawaii. While they had reservations at a timeshare property, the state required that they book a hotel room where they would need to quarantine until the test came back. Per the state's mandate, they were told they could not wait out the quarantine in a timeshare unit.

The Big Island of Hawaii even required a second (free) rapid antigen test for all arriving, transpacific passengers — though this now only applies to 25% of passengers (selected randomly by county officials at the airport).

And if you think these initial complications were concerning, things quickly went from challenging to chaotic.

  • Oct. 27: The island of Lanai went into lockdown. Vacationers on the island were only given a few hours to gather their things before hotels like the Four Seasons Resort Lanai were required to close. This mandatory, stay-at-home order ran through Nov. 11 and was then replaced with a "safer-at-home" order — one that remains in effect today.
  • Nov. 19: Governor Ige announced a new wrinkle to the pre-testing procedure, which took effect on Nov. 24. In addition to taking a PCR test within 72 hours of your departure, you must now have your negative result in hand prior to actually boarding your flight. This then led to CVS issuing a statement that it "cannot guarantee a specific turnaround time on the lab tests accepted by Hawaii." While it's still on the state's approved list of testing partners, you run the risk of being unable to board your flight if you rely on it.
  • Nov. 22: Quest Diagnostics withdrew from Hawaii's pre-travel testing program "due to high demand from healthcare providers for our COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing services."
  • Nov. 24: New pre-testing procedure announced on Nov. 19 goes into effect.
  • Nov. 28: The island of Kauai announces that it will opt out of the state's pre-testing program.
  • Dec. 2: Kauai's new policy goes into effect, requiring arriving residents and visitors to quarantine for 14 days, regardless of any pre-departure test result.

The end result of all of these modifications? Uncertainty for those hoping to visit the state.

"We canceled [our trip] since you simply cannot count on having your 72-hour test results in hand before boarding," said one TPG Lounge member who was planning to visit Oahu.

Another was originally booked to Kona in August but canceled at the last minute when the initial reopening was delayed. Her party arrived on Tuesday, Nov. 24 — the first day of the new testing requirements — but had a positively frantic experience trying to get her test results in time.

And this is what makes safely reopening so challenging.

Related: Opening America: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopening

What lessons can we learn

Hawaii invested significant time and energy in putting together a plan that would allow the state to reopen safely, minimize the spread of COVID-19 and throw a lifeline to cash-strapped businesses that rely on visitors. And even then, the last two months have been far from smooth.

Here's why this was so difficult — and what it means for other popular tourist destinations.

COVID-19 cases aren't linear

As we've seen in countries around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has been far from constant. Cases jumped in the U.S. in late March and early April, and we saw another wave over the summer. After falling in August and September, numbers have now exploded — crossing 200,000 cases per day multiple times over the last few weeks.

Hawaii mostly followed these trends, but it has (thus far) avoided the magnitude of the current surge. It's a reasonable conclusion that the updates over the last few weeks have been specifically aimed at keeping this the case.

External factors can't be controlled

Hawaii has to be commended for taking a comprehensive approach to reopening, involving multiple stakeholders and including several layers. Unfortunately, a destination can't control every aspect of a plan like this — like CVS' processing time for test results and Quest's capacity for the type of test Hawaii requires. It's critical to include these outside parties, but doing so relinquishes the ability to control the outcomes.

Individual locales can often implement more stringent requirements — with limited notice

Depending on the specific destination, you may also see varied restrictions depending on the municipality. We've seen this play out across the United States — like New York's requiring quarantine of arriving passengers from an ever-changing list of states. These policies can shift and change with very little notice.

Consider a traveler from the U.S. mainland who, in October, booked a trip to the island of Kauai for mid-December. At the time of booking, the requirements were vastly different than they now are. The further restrictions are understandable, given the limited ICU and hospital capacity of Kauai, but it adds another layer of difficulty in getting travelers (and their dollars) to book and travel.

The 2021 outlook

Mauna Kea Beach as seen from the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Photo courtesy of the resort)

Fortunately, there's reason to be optimistic about getting back to popular tourist destinations in the coming year. And data from Hawaii shows just how critical this is, as shutting the islands to tourism for eight months made a huge impact on private businesses and the state's bottom line.

Charlene Chan, special adviser to the director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism told U.S. News & World Report in June that the state's "general fund tax revenues will not recover to pre-crisis levels until fiscal year 2025. The state's economic growth rate will drop by 12% for fiscal year 2020."

Fortunately, with promising vaccine news over the last few weeks, this recovery may accelerate in 2021.

In fact, discounts and value-added perks in Hawaii are already on the table, according to TPG's Victoria Walker. In early November, she reported that Marriott's Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is offering 40% off the best available cash rates for stays of 14 days or more through June 30, 2021. You also get complimentary breakfast, tennis and use of beach equipment, 50% off green fees at both the Mauna Kea and Hapuna Golf Courses, 20% off all dining purchases, complimentary parking and waived resort charges.

Over at The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, stay six or more nights and get 25% off room rates, beach rentals/activities and green fees.

And now could be a great time to look ahead and start planning a getaway. Just about every airline and hotel loyalty program has extended elite status through next year, and some are offering shortcuts and promotions as incentives to book new trips. Airlines have also greatly relaxed change and cancellation policies — not just in response to the pandemic but permanently.

If Hawaii or another top vacation spot is on your radar for a 2021 trip, be sure to sign up for TPG Alerts and we'll notify you when deals become available.

Related: 6 versions of paradise: How to choose the right Hawaiian island for you

Bottom line

We know that Hawaii's shutdown and subsequent reopening has sparked many different emotions. There are Hawaiians that were furious with the governor for cutting tourism off at its knees for so long during the shutdown. Other residents were relieved to have time to get the virus in check before welcoming back visitors and believe we aren't yet at the time when leisure travel should be encouraged.

For would-be travelers, it was a roller coaster ride trying to determine if and when you could get to Hawaii. And, figuring out what sort of test you might need to take and where to get it was also a challenge. Plenty of travelers were disappointed in 2020 when they had to cancel or postpone a trip to the islands, and this trend won't be going away anytime soon.

Hawaii took many of the right steps, involving government agencies, health authorities, airlines, airports and testing providers (among others) — yet it still ran into difficulties. And these will likely continue. Coronavirus doesn't care where or when we scheduled our vacations; if outbreaks occur, we'll have to react and adjust accordingly.

Tourist destinations owe it to their residents and businesses to reopen safely — though the challenges of doing so are likely to remain for months to come.

Featured image by Getty Images