Vaccination exemption adds to a travel surge as key Hawaii lawmakers question need for tourism marketing

The leaders of the state House and Senate are saying that tourism marketing is no longer needed given the summer surge, and invited the Hawaii Tourism Authority to figure out what role it should play in managing tourism.

House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi made these remarks during Wednesday’s Spotlight Hawaii online broadcast. That conversation preceded today’s easing of restrictions for domestic travelers that are fully vaccinated for COVID — a move that is fueling concern that the state is unready to handle a greater swell of travelers.

Concern about overtourism has been a resounding theme that culminated Tuesday with a rare legislative override of House Bill 862, which fundamentally changes HTA’s funding and leaves its future uncertain. Hawaii’s visitor industry and business community lobbied hard to sustain Ige’s veto of HB 862, but their efforts fell one vote short in the Senate.

Asked about HTA’s role, Kouchi said: “What we’re hoping for is that we’re going to see a better collaboration between HTA and the visitor industry, the Legislature as well as the general public before we get to the point where we have incredible pushback from residents and really hurt our brand by having people who are unhappy with the visitors’ movement. We need to all be at the table working together. I think this creates a pathway for that to occur.”

Saiki later said, “I’m not sure that tourism needs to be marketed here anymore as we see now with the numbers increasing so rapidly. But I think that HTA has to help us be more strategic in how we target the kinds of the tourists, the visitors that we want to target for Hawaii.”

Their comments and the veto override are a sign that lawmakers recognize that some of their voters now hold such negative sentiments toward tourism that their views don’t change whether tourism is up or down.

Tourism hasn’t fully recovered but many residents are feeling greater effects now than during the previous peak. While the pandemic brought angst, residents also enjoyed the empty roads, beaches and hiking trails that accompanied the tourism pause.

The state’s difficulties in scaling up after the pandemic-induced slowdown also have contributed to resident and visitor dissatisfaction.

John De Fries, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the organization has been listening, and is reorganizing.

“We have realigned HTA’s primary focus from brand marketing to brand management, in our accelerated pivot toward being a more effective destination management organization that rightfully prioritizes the well-being of our communities and the initiatives in our 2020-25 Strategic Plan that are shaped by the principles of regenerative tourism,” De Fries said.

De Fries said destination management requires a long-term approach.

He said it must “encompasses environmental and cultural stewardship as well as brand marketing to ensure Hawaii maintains its globally competitive brand and can deliver on its destination promise in a way that is coordinated, authentic and market-appropriate.

“The purpose of marketing for HTA is not solely to bring more visitors here; it’s about educating those who come to our shores and teaching them how to be respectful travelers who give back to our communities in a reciprocal manner.”

Summer surge

A problem with the current discussion between the Legislature and HTA is that tourism won’t stop long enough for them to work out their differences, and it is projected to strengthen — at least through the summer.

During the holiday period from July 1-6, Safe Travels Hawaii screened 203,330 travelers, as many as 175,666 of whom were visitors. On July 1, 2 and 3 daily visitor arrivals topped 30,000. In July 2019, HTA statistics show an average of 32,189 visitors came by air each day.

Randy Rarick, former director of the Triple Crown of Surfing, said he and other residents are feeling the strain.

During the pandemic, Rarick said it took him 12 minutes to make the 7-mile drive from Haleiwa to Sunset Beach. On Monday, it took him 55 minutes.

“It’s because there’s a zillion tourists out there,” he said. “That’s good for the shops and the restaurants, but it just sucks for residents.”

Rarick said HTA should be the body that leads the charge to rebalance tourism.

“They came up with a destination management plan. Now, let’s see them implement it,” he said.

Rarick said the Legislature needs to ensure that HTA is transparent and effective, but shouldn’t be shortsighted.

“We do need to market so that we have quality not quantity when it comes to tourists,” he said.

Rarick said federal stimulus money, combined with the closure of many international destinations, already has spurred domestic travel to Hawaii. He believes offering a vaccine exemption will further increase interest in Hawaii from domestic travelers, whose pent-up demand for travel is setting records.

During the holiday period from July 1-6, TSA said it screened more than 11.9 million passengers at airport checkpoints.

TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein announced Friday on Twitter that “@TSA screened 2,147,090 people at airport security checkpoints nationwide yesterday, Thursday, July 1. Ready for this? It surpassed the 2019 checkpoint volume for the same day, which was 2,088,760.”

The checkpoint volume at U.S. airports on July 2 was even higher at 2,196,411 as compared to 718,988 the same day in 2020 and 2,184,253 on the same day in 2019.

“It was the highest throughput since the start of the pandemic,” Farbstein tweeted.

Safe Travels program

Safe Travels Special Projects Administrator Sherilyn Kajiwara said Hawaii expects the vaccination exemption will be popular with U.S. travelers as it removes the uncertainty of tests, as well as the challenge to find them and the added costs.

Kajiwara said as of today any traveler who is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the United States or U.S. territories will be eligible for the quarantine exception.

She said domestic travelers seeking a vaccination exemption should upload their vaccination records into Safe Travels, and bring a hard copy to present to screeners on arrival. The state will accept a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 vaccination card, a VAMS (Vaccine Administration Management System) printout or certificate, or a DOD DD Form 2766C.

“I think we can all say that travel will probably increase because of the flexibility that we are allowing,” Kajiwara said. “I think a lot of people are very anxious to get out and travel and I think Hawaii is one of the top three destinations where people feel safe.”

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said it’s good that Hawaii has reopened travel safely.

Still, he cautioned against making rash tourism policy decisions when Hawaii isn’t likely to see a sustained recovery until after the state hits the 70% vaccination rate and ends its Safe Travels program.

“As we go into this next phase more and more destinations will come online and complete with us, and you won’t have the pent-up demand that you see now,” Hannemann said.

Hawaii does not allow international travelers to use a vaccination exemption, and not all nations are eligible for the Safe Travels testing program, he said.

COVID testing is required for unvaccinated domestic travelers who want to bypass the quarantine. The state has waived the testing requirement for children under the age of 5, but older unvaccinated children must test to be exempt from Hawaii’s quarantine.

Date 2021 Traveler Throughput 2020 Traveler Throughput 2019 Traveler Throughput
7/6/2021 1,889,911 641,761 2,506,859
7/5/2021 2,160,147 755,555 2,748,718
7/4/2021 1,681,896 732,123 2,795,369
7/3/2021 1,915,017 466,669 2,345,846
7/2/2021 2,196,411 718,988 2,184,253
7/1/2021 2,147,090 764,761 2,088,760

TSA throughputs at airports nationwide are picking up. July 1 and July 2, which was the most heavily trafficked screening day since the pandemic, even outpaced 2019.

Source: TSA

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