I love Hawaii, but I’m not going back anytime soon — here’s why
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I adore Hawaii. I’ve been four times in the past couple of years, including during the period when Kauai had a resort bubble program. I was back most recently in July, but several new developments are making me rethink going back anytime soon.
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COVID-19 is surging again
Hawaii fully reopened to vaccinated travelers back on July 8. That opened the floodgates to visitors, with pre-pandemic-sized crowds returning. Unfortunately, Hawaii, like the rest of America, is experiencing another wave of coronavirus infections with the delta variant behind much of the surge.
The state went from reporting 60 daily cases a few weeks ago to as many as 500 a day in the past week. The test positivity rate has also surged. In fact, according to Reuters quoting the state’s department of health, cases rose by 168% between July 26 and Aug. 8.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige, in a news conference last week, said, “We need to take action, and we need to take action now.”
An emergency room physician in Hawaii named Dr. Darragh O’Carroll told local TV station KHON, “Our cases are increasing, hospitals are filling up and this has no end in sight.”
Hawaii is reimposing restrictions
Some health workers and Hawaiian residents are asking for more restrictions in light of the COVID-19 surge.
Indeed, the governor already started rolling back some of the reopening moves last week, reimposing a mask mandate and reducing restaurant and bar capacity back down to 50%. Also coming back? Restrictions on crowds. There can only be 10 or fewer people for indoor events and 25 for outdoor events.
More changes could be coming. Some are suggesting that Hawaii should bring back pre-testing requirements for all incoming travelers and also add post-arrival testing. So far, the governor is resisting bringing back those kinds of measures, saying he wouldn’t be “making any specific changes to the Safe Travels program.”
Still, the idea that new restrictions could be imposed at any moment would make me nervous about booking another trip right now.
Related: Hawaii ends testing requirements
Hawaii residents are angry at over-tourism
Hawaii residents got a great break from tourists during the pandemic, one of the few bright spots in a dark time. Hawaii residents were able to explore their own lands without traffic and mostly tourist-free. It was the first time in most people’s lives that the islands were empty.
After Hawaii relaxed its strict COVID-19 restrictions and allowed vaccinated visitors from the mainland to come test-free, airlines rushed to add flights and travel-hungry Americans booked everything available.
Among the biggest complaints from residents is the terrible congestion that has returned with a vengeance to places like Oahu, the Big Island and even Maui’s formidable Road to Hana.
It’s gotten so bad that the mayor of Maui has even begged airlines to cut back on the number of flights.
At a news conference last month, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said, “We don’t have the authority to say stop, but we are asking the powers to be to help us.”
According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Maui had just 1,054 visitors in May of 2020 during the height of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the last time the cries of over-tourism were this loud, Maui saw more than 251,000 arrivals. This May? More than 215,000. While those numbers are not higher than 2019, there has been a huge uptick in visitors since May.
The Maui mayor and residents are also up in arms over the iconic Road to Hana, with locals complaining that tourists are illegally parking on the tiny two-lane road, trespassing on private land on illegal hikes and slowing traffic to a crawl on the twisty road. When I drove the highway in July, I saw lots of handwritten signs warning tourists not to trespass. TPG’s Zach Honig saw them too.
In 2019, Hawaii got a majority of its private income from tourism, including more than $2 billion in tax revenue, but the economic benefits don’t always translate to good quality of life for Native Hawaiians.
I heard several locals complaining about the traffic when I was there. While the Hawaii residents I talked to were warm and welcoming, I could feel the frustration. It just doesn’t feel like a great time to visit Hawaii.
When I was in Kauai in January of 2021, testing out the island’s resort bubble program, I was one of very few tourists. By the time I was back in Hawaii and Oahu in March, it was like a light switch had been turned back on. The spring break crowds were back with a vengeance. Locals told me it happened almost overnight.
Hotels, not fully staffed or fully reopened in many cases, couldn’t keep up with the crowds. It led to long lines for everything from checking in to ordering at Starbucks to waiting for elevators. It’s not a great way to spend a vacation when coronavirus is still spreading.
While I didn’t find Kaui and Maui as crowded as Honolulu when I went back in July, there were still a lot of people around at most beaches, restaurants and shopping centers I went to. I’m just not ready to go back until things calm down a bit.
As pointed out above, there are shortages of everything at the moment in many places in Hawaii. The biggest shortages are for rental cars and restaurant reservations.
Restaurants and bars are again operating at only 50% capacity. There was a brief window when the government allowed them to operate at 75% capacity, but the surge in new COVID-19 cases means that most eateries now can only fill half their tables.
Even when they were briefly at three-quarters capacity, most restaurants couldn’t keep up with demand. There is also a shortage of restaurant workers which means they can serve fewer meals.
Tourists are being advised to book dinner reservations well ahead of time — as much as months in advance. Even as a solo traveler, I wasn’t able to score same-day reservations at the most popular spots (like The Dolphin in Poipu).
For my July trip, I knew it was bad because of the well-documented shortage of rental cars, but I wasn’t expecting to see “sold out” everywhere. There were literally no cars available for Kauai or Maui in July.
I ended up renting a Turo in Maui, but I paid through the teeth for it, and it added several major layers of stress to the trip (I didn’t even bother getting a car on Kauai). For my trip from the Sheraton to the airport, for example, I wasn’t able to prebook a rental car and ended up relying on a local who offered to take me the day before just out of the aloha spirit. I was stressing about it during my two days at the hotel, which is no way to spend a vacation.
It’s expensive right now
Shortages mean that prices are higher than normal for everything. While you can still occasionally find flight deals, hotels are really expensive and Airbnbs are too, if you can find availability.
I looked at rates for September in Maui and most of the major resorts started at $500 a night before resort fees. The Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa started at more than $700 a night. The Ritz-Carlton was asking more than $1,600 a night. Even the airport Courtyard in Maui was more than $538 a night.
It was a similar story on Kauai, where the Hilton Garden Inn was sold out for the first half of September and then asking for $357 to $450 a night when they had rooms available at all.
It’s true of rental cars and vacation rental companies too. If you want to go right now, it’s going to cost you even if you try to do budget hotels.
I absolutely love Hawaii and I look forward to going back … someday.
With the surge in coronavirus cases, escalating prices, crowds and the possibility of new restrictions, I’m going to hold off on booking any more trips for now. No doubt many Native Hawaiians -and Hawaii residents – are hoping more tourists make a similar decision.
Featured photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.
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