What to Know About the Effect of Coronavirus on Hawaii Tourism

Airplane over palm trees

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In what is usually the onset of Hawaii’s busy summer season, the state’s vibrant parks, historical sites, restaurants, bars, beaches, and hotels have remained almost entirely vacant throughout the first days of April. Famed Waikiki Beach, generally packed with hardly a space to lay down a towel, is virtually deserted save for a few loyal surfers dotting the waves.

Just days ago, however, Hawaii was finding itself a hotspot for tourists (dubbed “virus refugees” by some of the locals) exploiting the coronavirus through cheap airfare and the promise of a waiting out a pandemic in paradise.

Those who had been ordered to work remotely by their employers saw an opportunity to do so in Hawaii, thinking their risk of contracting the virus was low due to age or good health. Others who’d previously believed a dream vacation to Hawaii was financially impossible suddenly saw ticket prices plummet. Almost immediately, they began stocking up at the local stores, competing with residents on an island that relies entirely on ocean and airplane transport for medical supplies, household goods, and food.

It is no secret that Hawaii's economy thrives off of tourism. Followed closely by the military, it's the state's leading industry and is responsible for employing a vast majority of its residents. Indeed, the dangers of an economy based almost exclusively on tourism has been a big topic of discussion amongst community rhetoric for years. Residents are no strangers to sharing their resources with the traveling community in times of crisis, either. Each time a major hurricane is poised to hit the islands during the warm summer months, tourists quickly venture beyond the confines of Waikiki to score pallets of water bottles and sandwich ingredients at Costco in hopes of riding out the storm from inside their hotel rooms.

During the final weeks of March, local protests against the government's continuation of tourism in Hawaii during the coronavirus outbreak took place throughout tourist areas and airports, some with signs urging visitors to "go home." Residents were worried, and understandably so. Hawaii has limited medical resources, and visitors who may arrive and get sick will be taking those resources away from those who live there. On March 25, an Illinois family who had taken advantage of cheap ticket prices to the islands was verbally attacked in public by a man accusing them of bringing the virus from the mainland.

Statewide, Hawaii has just over 3,000 hospital beds and 562 ventilators, most of them on Oahu, to supplement its 1,420,000 residents. On the smaller islands of Lanai and Molokai, where there is only one hospital, ER doctors are often flown in from the neighboring islands. Now, Hawaii faced the added threat of providing for tourists as well as residents during a pandemic.

On March 21, Governor David Ige urged travelers to rethink their Hawaii vacation by ordering a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the state between March 26 until April 30, applicable to tourists and residents alike. It was the first such action in the nation; at the time of the announcement, there had been a total of 48 confirmed or likely positive cases in the state.

A few days later, Ige announced a stay at home order throughout the islands, adding that the new laws will help the state to “deal with the virus first, protect the integrity of our destination and enable us to welcome our visitors back to Hawaii soon.” Those found not complying with the mandates face a fine of $5,000 or up to a year in jail, and visitors are financially responsible for any costs associated with their quarantine. By April 1, Hawaii had reported a total of 285 cases and two deaths.

On Kauai, Mayor Derek Kawakami issued a mandatory nighttime curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and initiated island-wide checkpoints. The state is also suspending its homeless sweeps, and providing grab-and-go meals for some campuses after closing public schools through April 30. On the last day of March, Honolulu's mayor, Kirk Caldwell, publically asked the president to cease all non-essential travel to Hawaii following the first reported coronavirus-related death on Oahu. “You show up on our shores, you’re putting a great burden on the limited resources we have,” he explained to visitors. “Now is not the time to take a vacation to Hawaii.”

“We want this action to send a message to visitors and residents alike that we appreciate their love for Hawaii, but at this time, we believe our community is very important, and we need to come together to fight this virus,” Ige said. “We are asking them to postpone their visits to our island community. We know that our economy will suffer from this action, but we truly appreciate the cooperation we’ve received from our hospitality industry to understand that these actions are necessary. We believe it will help us to flatten the curve and need everyone to comply with these quarantine orders because the safety and welfare of the people of Hawaii is our number one priority.”

Exactly one week after the mandatory quarantine started, tourism had already dropped dramatically. Of the 664 people who arrived in Hawaii on April 1, only 120 were visitors. The same time last year saw over 30,000 passengers per day.

While Hawaii’s beaches—the reason why most tourists visit in the first place—are closed, the state is allowing residents to use the water for exercise. Those attempting to sunbathe or lounge on the beach are met with local police patrolling the area and told to either get in the water or go home. On March 31, Kauai police arrested a man from Florida for violating the quarantine in Hanalei. On April 2, a Washington man was arrested for arriving on the island without prior reservations for lodging and refusing to find accommodations. According to Chief Susan Ballard, Honolulu police have already issued 1,500 warnings, 180 citations, and made nine arrests for violations against the emergency pandemic laws.

With shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) already being declared in medical facilities, the Hawaii community is coming together to hold supply drives, organize donations, and even use 3D printers to supply additional equipment. The state has also implemented a “Hotels for Heroes” program offering complimentary hotel rooms for healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential personnel to keep them and their families safe.

The pandemic will prove to have long-lasting economic effects on the islands. On April 3, Hawaii News Now reported that nearly 25 percent of Hawaii’s workers—some 16,000 residents—had filed for unemployment over the previous month. Regular visitors to Hawaii can show their love for the islands during this unprecedented time from afar, by buying a gift card from their favorite Hawaii restaurant or bar, purchasing Hawaiian Airlines miles, or donating to a Hawaii-based charity or non-profit organization.

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