Loosened intercounty restrictions give boost to Hawaii travel

Hawaii ended restrictions on intercounty travel between the Hawaiian Islands on Tuesday and extended the quarantine exemption to domestic travelers who were fully vaccinated with at least one shot in Hawaii.

Hilo resident Fabinita Franco was all smiles Tuesday as she prepared to leave Daniel K. Inouye International Airport after a work trip.

“It was so easy compared to when I went to Alabama and I had to look for my health code. They don’t need it anymore for Hilo,” Franco said. “I come from the Philippines, and I don’t have much knowledge of computers. I’m more confident to travel now. I was nervous before.”

The latest change to Safe Travels helped Franco get back to work as a caregiver and represents another step toward normalcy and the broader reopening of Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy. It’s also expected to drive more tourism to Hawaii and between the islands, although the largest gains won’t occur until Hawaii offers vaccination exemptions to all domestic travelers or ends Safe Travels entirely.

Sherilyn Kajiwara, a special-projects administrator assigned to Safe Travels Hawaii, said Tuesday during an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser at the airport that travel “is busy today, but not any busier with the new restrictions lifted than yesterday.”

Testing is still allowed, but more people have begun to use a vaccination card, Kajiwara said.

“By 10 a.m. (Tuesday) we had already had about 770 travelers that used the vaccination card.”

Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said this latest loosening of some travel restrictions is not as much about bolstering tourism as it is about getting Hawaii to the next step of tourism’s reopening.

“We’re anticipating a robust summer, and this enables it to go smoothly while demonstrating that we aren’t going to sacrifice the health and safety of our community,” Hannemann said.

Trans-Pacific travelers who weren’t vaccinated in Hawaii still have to comply with the requirements of Safe Travels, which requires a negative COVID test from a “trusted travel partner.” Gov. David Ige has said that the state would allow domestic trans-Pacific travelers who were vaccinated outside of Hawaii to begin using vaccination exemptions when 60% of Hawaii’s population is vaccinated for COVID.

But even then Hawaii’s not likely to see a full tourism recovery, as families make up a large portion of Hawaii’s leisure tourism market and travelers 5 to 11 years old are not eligible for vaccines, so they must test to bypass the quarantine, said longtime Hawaii hotel­ier Jerry Gibson.

“The family market takes over from June 15 to Aug. 15, and the last thing that parents want is to be hung up by a procedural problem,” Gibson said. “We are watching the vaccination stats every day because it’s very important that we make travel to Hawaii as easy as possible. We are looking forward to the day that we can open completely and get back to normal travel.”

Ige has said the state would end Safe Travels when 70% of Hawaii’s population is vaccinated for COVID. At that point, Ige has said he would lift essentially all travel and COVID-19 public health restrictions, including indoor mask mandates.

Keith Vieira, principal of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said getting to those benchmarks is becoming increasingly important as other destinations open more fully. Vieira said he was in San Francisco on Tuesday, the first day that California lifted nearly all of its pandemic restrictions, including its mask mandate.

“Fisherman’s Wharf was absolutely packed, and no one was wearing a mask. Today Trader Joe’s, Walmart, all of them announced no mask in the stores. You can tell today that things have changed,” he said. “The hotel that I’m staying at picked up 100 reservations just for check-in today.”

Vieira said the allure of Hawaii also has resulted in a strong summer, with a booking pace this week above 2019 levels.

However, he said some of the bookings were made on the expectation that the state would further loosen travel restrictions, especially for fully vaccinated travelers.

If that doesn’t happen, Vieira said travelers might cancel or postpone trips to Hawaii and instead head to places where travel requirements are nonexistent or less expensive and easier to understand.

Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Tara Shimooka said, “Testing remains an impediment to travel, especially as many other travel destinations begin to exempt vaccinated travelers for restrictions.”

“We also need to see a loosening of restrictions for international travel for our state’s economy to get to a full recovery,” Shimooka said. “Lastly, the screening associated with Safe Travels is costly and consumes resources that could be dedicated to other measures to ensure public health at this point in the pandemic.”

But she said Hawaiian was encouraged by the demand for neighbor island travel that has materialized since Ige’s June 4 announcement about Tuesday’s changes.

“We’ve seen an uptick in neighbor island bookings for travel during the back half of June. The demand continues into midsummer with July bookings outperforming June levels,” Shimooka said. “Most local residents are well informed on the travel changes and are eager to travel freely throughout the islands to visit family and friends and conduct business.”

Kajiwara advises that travelers stay abreast of Hawaii’s entry requirements by visiting the travel tab on hawaiicovid19.com.

She said some domestic travelers have been trying to use their vaccination cards to enter Hawaii since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that fully vaccinated travelers may travel safely in the U.S.

She said another common error is failing to get a COVID test from one of the state’s 38 trusted testing partners.

Kajiwara said there also are still travelers who must quarantine in Hawaii because they took the wrong test, failed to meet the 72-hour testing window or didn’t get back the results before boarding the plane on the last leg of their flight to Hawaii.

Kajiwara said pre-clear programs offered on Hawaiian, Southwest, Alaska and United airlines have helped travelers avoid frustration by double-checking that they have met Safe Travels requirements and allowing them to bypass arrivals screening lines.

On Tuesday there were 1,693 people in travel quarantine in Hawaii. Kajiwara estimates that more than half of those quarantining were returning residents, who don’t mind staying home for 10 days.

“It’s a very small percentage of people who have to quarantine,” Kajiwara said. “In the early days people didn’t understand the program. Now word has gotten out.”

However, not broadly enough, said Melanie Savage, who spent more than $3,000 to fly to Hawaii on June 3 from North Carolina with husband DaJuan Savage for a vacation, only to learn that they had to quarantine because their tests didn’t come from trusted testing partners.

“The ticket guy said we were all clear in Charlotte,” said Savage. “If we had known that we weren’t, we wouldn’t have taken the flight for eight hours and then waited in the screening line for two hours. We would have been turned around.”

Savage said she’s not against Hawaii’s COVID-­related travel requirements, but she said that they should be clearer. She also said the state should consider allowing travelers who run afoul of the pre-entry requirements to bypass the quarantine with a post-­arrival test.

“This was our first and last trip to Hawaii. We were like caged animals in our room,” she said. “We thought, ‘What the hell is this place?’ It felt like a Third World country.’”