Travel battles blowback from Hawaii governor's 'don't come' comment

Travel advisors, wholesalers and others in the Hawaii travel industry were slammed with calls and messages and said they expect a significant dip in Aloha State bookings following Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s Aug. 23 press conference where he recommended against travel to the Islands.

In response to a surge in Covid-19 cases tied to the delta variant that has jammed Hawaii’s hospitals and led to the highest statewide daily case counts of the entire pandemic, Ige declared, “now is not a good time to travel to Hawaii.” 

Additionally, Honolulu County, which encompasses all of Oahu, suspended large, organized gatherings through Sept. 22, which includes trade shows, conferences and meetings, conventions, concerts and other live events, ticketed sporting events, sports tournaments and gatherings associated with weddings and funerals.

“It will take six to seven weeks to see significant change in the number of Covid cases,” Ige said. “It is a risky time to be traveling right now. Everyone, residents and visitors alike, should reduce travel to essential business activities only.”

The governor stopped short of issuing an actual mandate, however, and some in the travel industry said that left them in a tricky position. 

The pandemic shutdown gave the Islands time to address overtourism, and hotels the space to implement customer-centric technology. What results is a new visitor experience in the Aloha State.

Jack Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said his staff was “deluged” with calls from clients seeking clarity on the announcement. He said he understood the governor is “trying to do the right thing and protect the citizens of Hawaii,” but without an actual order halting nonessential travel to the Islands, airlines, hotels and other services were unlikely to issue refunds, and it was difficult to give travelers clear-cut advice.

“It’s not a requirement, it’s simply a statement,” Richards said. “So it’s going to be very confusing for everyone. If he really wants to stop travel to Hawaii, he should make it mandatory.”

Richards said he had already seen an uptick in cancellations starting in July as the delta variant caused a surge in cases across the country, and now he expects more for Hawaii.

“This will absolutely impact future bookings for Hawaii. Anytime you have this political rhetoric, it’s negative for travel to Hawaii,” Richards said. “It creates a lot of uncertainty in people’s minds and makes them cautious.”

Richards said that clients have options. “You can book Mexico or the Caribbean. Even travel to Europe is opening up now.”

Ben Rafter, a Hawaii Tourism Authority board member and CEO of Springboard Hospitality, said he supported Honolulu County’s move to limit large gatherings, while noting enforcement would be crucial to actually slowing the pace of infections. 

“However, nebulous statements like suggesting people not come to Hawaii have long-term, harmful effects,” Rafter said. “No one wants to book something in a state of uncertainty, and while the governor was focusing on now through October, the headline is, ‘Don’t come to Hawaii.'”

Covid’s community spread

Community spread is the main culprit for the recent spike in cases, according to Hawaii Department of Health data, with travel-related Covid-19 cases in July making up about 14% of cases, with only 1% linked to nonresident travelers. 

“Tourists aren’t the issue here, nor are tourism workers,” Rafter said. “The message should be ‘get vaccinated,’ especially now that Pfizer is FDA-approved. It’s one’s right not to get vaccinated, which is fine. If you don’t get vaccinated, though, then be extra cautious about proper safety. This may seem like the flu, but the hospital statistics don’t lie: Our hospitals are full of unvaccinated people. It has very little to do with tourists, and scapegoating tourists isn’t productive.” 

During the Aug. 23 press conference, state officials argued Hawaii’s hospitals are at a tipping point that makes any additional demand on services risky. 

“The surge of Covid cases is mainly due to community spread, followed by residents flying to hot spot areas abroad and bringing Covid back into their households and community,” said Dr. Elizabeth Char, director of the Department of Health. “If things do not change, our healthcare systems will be crippled, and those needing medical care for all types of diseases, injuries and conditions, including our visitors, may find it difficult to get the treatment they need right away.”

Tourism marketing is under intense scrutiny in Hawaii, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority is a target for change.

Hawaii Tourism Association president John De Fries issued a statement saying everyone is “responsible for working together to address this crisis.”

“As such, we are strongly advising visitors that now is not the right time to travel, and they should postpone their trips through the end of October.”

Honolulu-based travel advisor Bruce Fisher of Hawaii Aloha Travel said he has become “numb” to all of the stops and starts for Hawaii tourism since the onset of the pandemic and that this is “not a time to panic.” The vast majority of his customers have travel insurance that will let them cancel for any reason for travel credit, he added.

“We were already entering our slow, shoulder season, and I suspect this will slow down bookings even further,” he said.

Regarding the Oahu suspension of large gatherings, both Fisher and Richards expressed the most concern about luau bookings. But the Oahu Visitors Bureau confirmed to Travel Weekly that luaus will be allowed to continue with additional restrictions that prevent groups from mingling and interacting with each other, performers and staff.

“I’m taking it on a case-by-case basis with my clients,” Fisher said. “It matters if someone is vaccinated or not. It matters if they are young or old. We’re not discouraging, and we’re not encouraging. We’re giving our clients the information without sugar-coating anything and helping them make the best decision for them.” 

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