Vaccines could lead to lifting of travel restrictions

Mar. 15—The state might loosen interisland travel restrictions as early as next month, with similar adjustments under consideration for trans-­Pacific travel, if vaccine distribution supports the plan.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green told the Star-Advertiser last week he supports loosening interisland travel restrictions, especially for vaccinated travelers. Green has recommended loosening interisland travel restrictions as early as April 1. He's also recommending allowing trans-Pacific travelers, who have been properly vaccinated, to bypass the testing and quarantine requirements on May 1.

Governments and companies around the world are working to develop a vaccine passport that could identify vaccinated individuals, who might qualify for less restrictive travel entry and other benefits. Green said he has reached out to mobile health apps, such as CommonPass, to discuss using their vaccination passport in Hawaii.

There also has been some buy-in among state lawmakers who are considering Senate Resolution 53 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 71, urging Gov. David Ige to allow travelers—interisland and trans-Pacific—to bypass the mandatory 10-day quarantine if they provide proof that they have been properly vaccinated.

Green said lifting interisland restrictions, with or without the vaccine tie-in, is under discussion with the four county mayors.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami and Hawaii island Mayor Mitch Roth on Friday said they supported loosening interisland restrictions if state officials felt ready.

"The discussion has been to drop travel restriction for interisland travel ; it has nothing tied to vaccination. When the state is ready to drop restrictions for interisland travel, we will be ready for it, " Kawakami said. "We based that decision because our vaccine clinics here on Kauai are doing very well."

Roth said he also supports lifting interisland travel restrictions even if the move wasn't tied to vaccinations.

"My feeling is, yes, we are supportive either way for interisland. A lot of people are having difficult times. Paying $150 each way (for tests )—that is difficult for a lot of our families here, " he said.

However, Maui Mayor Mike Victorino said during a March 5 news conference that the move was premature.

On Thursday, Maui's seven ­-day average of tests yielding positive results was 2.8 %, the highest in the state.

"At this point our numbers do not indicate that we are ready to open up and drop the interisland quarantine, " Victorino said. "So at this point my answer to the question is no. In three weeks or in two weeks, we'll see where our numbers are. Maybe it will be a different answer."

When it comes to tweaks for trans-Pacific travelers who have been vaccinated, Roth said that as "long as our numbers stay low, I feel pretty comfortable supporting it."

When it came to loosening trans-Pacific restrictions, Kawakami wasn't opposed to the concept, but he questioned the timetable.

"Vaccines are something that we hope can lead to less restriction, " he said. "I'm not sure if May 1 is a tangible date—and it's just because we have not been a part of the discussion as far as the state being anywhere close to May 1 as a date that they were ready. But if so, that would be great. That's why we are working so hard to get vaccines out to people."

Mayor Rick Blangiardi did not respond last week to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser's request for comment.

Green said he's hopeful that consensus on the vaccine-related loosening of travel restrictions comes in time for tourism-dependent Hawaii to keep its edge, especially as more destinations compete for summer business.

"We've still got a few weeks, " he said.

Chris Kam, OmniTrak Group's president and chief operating officer, said the start of more meaningful tourism recovery isn't projected until the fourth quarter. However, he expects pent-up demand from U.S. travelers and wider vaccine distribution and acceptance could lead to a bump in summer travel for Hawaii.

"The vaccine has made a world of difference—it's literally a shot in the arm for tourism, " Kam said. "Market sentiment is improving really quickly, and travel intentions are improving really quickly and a lot of it has to do with vaccinations."

Kam said OmniTrak's latest TravelTrak America survey noted that only 30 % or so of U.S. travelers surveyed in the fourth quarter had plans to get the vaccination as soon as they could. As of March that number had increased to 56 %, he said.

"Widespread acceptance of the vaccine among travelers has really jumped, and with that so has sentiment toward travel and willingness to leave the house and go on leisure vacations, " Kam said.

In OmniTrak's fourth-quarter TravelTrak America survey, Kam said only 33 % of travelers had travel plans in the next six months, 32 % were considering traveling and 34 % had no plans. Now, he said, 51 % of travelers surveyed by OmniTrak said they planned to travel in the next six months, 33 % are considering traveling and only 16 % had no plans.

Since Oct. 15, Green said, Safe Travels Hawaii has safely welcomed more than 1 million visitors to Hawaii while keeping infection rates low.

From March 7, 2020, to March 6, "Hawaii has had the lowest COVID-19 infection rate and the lowest COVID-19 death rate in the nation, " he said.

What hasn't been healthy is Hawaii tourism, which still wasn't in the best of shape Thursday, the first anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Only 17, 568 travelers came through the Hawaii Safe Travels program Thursday, and of those, only 13, 932 were considered visitors, with only 10, 030 traveling for pleasure or a vacation. Prior to the pandemic, daily travelers would have been closer to 30, 000, most of them visitors.

"A year later it's very clear that there's still some significant struggling, " said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. "Many businesses have had to lay off and furlough workers. Some have had to close—we don't have a list, but we're hearing conservatively that it's about 13, 000 businesses, but it could be more. We believe that it's still a dire situation."

Menor-McNamara said she is hopeful that Hawaii's robust vaccination program and continued low case counts would allow leaders to consider lifting some of the restrictions of the Safe Travels program, especially for interisland.

"(They could allow ) local residents to be able to visit the different islands without having to take a test, because most of the islands already have a low case count. That way, there would be some local economic activity going on while trans-Pacific travelers are restricted at the moment, " she said.

Sean Dee, Outrigger Hospitality Group's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said occupancy at Hawaii hotels is slowly recovering but is still only about 30 % of pre-COVID levels.

"Many hotels in Hawaii remain closed, and most are unprofitable but are losing less and see the booking pace for summer and year-end improving each week, " Dee said. "Right now, obviously, only the U.S. market is traveling, so we won't see real recovery until Japan, Canada, Korea and Oceania source markets open up and travel again, likely (third quarter ) and beyond. Only then will our hotels become profitable again and we can bring back more of our furloughed hosts back to work."

More than 580, 000 Hawaii workers filed unemployment claims in 2020, about half of the state's working population.

"That is a staggering amount. (Hawaii Tourism Authority ) reports that the Hawaii tourism economy supports approximately 216, 000 jobs, but clearly you can see from the data that the devastated tourism industry has a much broader impact on the state than most realize, " Dee said.

Hawaii's tourism industry isn't just about airlines, hotels and rental car companies, Dee said.

"Visitors eat in our restaurants, which support wholesalers, drivers, fishermen and farmers. They shop in our retail stores and visit our attractions, " he said. "The tourism industry is the nucleus of the islands' economy and represents a true economic ecosystem that benefits the majority of the residents."