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Hawaiʻi’s Safe Travel Program is Luring Tourists Back, But Very Slowly

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On an overcast Friday morning at Kalama Beach Park in Kihei, a woman from New York was getting a surf lesson with Maui Waveriders.

At this same time last year, the surf shop would have had about 30 to 40 paying tourists learning how to jump on a board and feel the power of a wave take them to shore. But on this day, the New York woman and three people from San Diego were the only clients.

“It’s a little better than it was, but we still barely have enough business to keep the doors open,” said Tom Castleton, who has owned Maui Waveriders for more than 20 years. “There’s been a trickle here and a trickle there. We’re crossing our fingers we will get a little rush for the holidays.”

As state officials and business leaders expected, the launch of Hawaiʻi’s Safe Travel Program on Oct. 15 has led to only a modest increase in tourism in the early stages. A big reason is the country and world continue to deal with a COVID-19 pandemic that is now surging in record numbers of daily cases in many areas where temperatures are getting colder and more people are forced to stay indoors.

During the first 23 days of the Safe Travel Program, 144,896 trans-Pacific travelers have arrived in Hawai’i for an average of 6,300 per day. This is more than triple the per day average of 1,939 trans-Pacific travelers that arrived in the weeks before the program launch (Sept. 1 to Oct. 14), according to data from the Safe Travel Program.

“Triple” may seem like a big increase until you consider the average number of people who arrived each day by air to Hawai’i in October 2019 was 25,158, according to state tourism statistics.


For the first 23 days of the Safe Travel Program, Maui has had a total of 31,715 trans-Pacific travelers; the Big Island has had 15,953; Kaua‘i has had 14,379; and O‘ahu has had 82,549.

Maui has gone from an average of 193 trans-Pacific travelers per day during the 43 days before the launch of the Safe Travels Program to the 1,379 per day in the first 23 days of the program. The Big Island has increased from 166 to 694; Kaua‘i has gone from 42 to 625; and O‘ahu from 1,535 to 3,589.

But a significant percentage of those travelers are not tourists.

Of the 31,715 trans-Pacific travelers who have arrived on Maui since the launch of the Safe Travels Program, 20,502 said they came for pleasure/vacation, 213 for their honeymoon, 71 to get married and 3,553 were visiting friends and relatives.

Of those Maui arrivals, 3,288 were returning residents, 659 were intended residents, 413 were essential workers and 1,720 were airline crew. The remaining arrivals provided a variety of reasons, including incentive trips, military/federal government, and corporate meetings.


On the Big Island, the 15,953 arrivals since the Safe Travel Program began included: 7,043 for vacation/pleasure, 2,666 visiting friends and relatives, 2,780 returning residents, 725 intended residents, 322 essential workers, and 1,129 airline crew. Eighteen people were getting married and 43 were on their honeymoon.

For Kauai, the 14,379 arrivals since Oct. 15 included: 9,574 for pleasure/vacation, 1,541 visiting friends or relatives, 1,075 returning residents, 293 intended residents, 137 essential workers, and 874 airline crew. Seventeen people were getting married and 114 were on their honeymoon.

Many tourist-based business have yet to reopen because the number of arriving tourists does not make it economically viable yet.

“We are in a wait and see pattern, but we feel we are getting closer to a reopening date,” said Toni Rojas, Director of Marketing at Maui Ocean Center, which has been closed since March due to the pandemic.

“Pre-COVID, Thanksgiving generally was strong and then it would taper off for the first two weeks of December and then pick up again,” she said. “I’d love to see that, but based on talking to some of our hospitality partners, no one is feeling overly confident about any specific dates.”


Castelton with Maui Waveriders said that he also is hopeful business will pick up for the holidays. He had employed about 23 people before COVID-19 shut down tourism. Now, “my wife and I do most of the work.”

Hawai’i’s Safe Travel Program allows trans-Pacific travelers to skip the state’s mandatory 14-day quarantine if the traveler can provide a negative COVID-19 test taken from an approved provider within 72 hours of traveling to Hawai’i.

So far, the increase in trans-Pacific travelers has not led to an increase in COVID-19 cases, according to data from the state Department of Health.

Since the launch of the Safe Travels Program, the average number of new daily COVID-19 cases has been 91, the exact same number that Hawaiʻi averaged during the 14 days just prior to the launch.

Average daily cases went slightly down on the Big Island from 19 to 16.6 and on Oahu from 70 to 64.5. Average deaths per day also has been down, from 3.2 to 1.6.

Maui’s new cases have gone up slightly, from an average of 1.6 per day in the 14 days before the launch to 1.8. Kaua‘i had no new COVID-19 cases in the two weeks prior to the Safe Travels Program launch. Since Oct. 15, it has had a total of 13 cases. And on Lānaʻi, where there had also been no new cases in the two weeks leading up to the launch, there was an outbreak of 101 cases, starting on Oct. 22.

On Nov. 4, the state had its highest new case total in weeks at 156, with 125 of them on O‘ahu, 4 on Maui, and 21 on the Big Island.


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