Mayor Harry Kim said an announcement by Japanese officials that Hawaii is on a list of 12 countries and regions being considered as safe destinations for international travel is very good news for both the Big Island and the state.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi announced that the new Japan-Hawaii safe travel program will be tightly regulated to protect the health and safety of travelers and prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections.
The program would require a negative pre-travel coronavirus test, and would include screenings of travelers entering Japan.
Kim has voiced his opposition to Gov. David Ige’s plan to drop mandatory 14-day quarantine requirements on Sept. 1 for arriving mainland visitors who test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of flying.
The mayor also is opposed to the University of Hawaii’s plan to bring out-of-state students back with a so-called “modified quarantine bubble” on Aug. 24. He cited rising infection rates on the mainland, especially in states such as California, Arizona and Texas, plus the difficulty of enforcing quarantines for students.
The mayor is in favor, however, of allowing travel to and from Japan without quarantines, as long as testing protocols are in place.
“They’ve led the way in testing. They’ll be more than capable of testing any visitor that wants to come to Hawaii,” Kim said.
As of Monday, Japan, a country of more than 126 million people, had 29,989 cases and 996 deaths. That’s compared to the U.S., with a population of 331 million, which has more than a quarter of the world’s confirmed coronavirus cases, 4.29 million, and more than 148,000 deaths.
Hawaii, however, despite a recent surge in cases reported daily, has a low infection rate — 1,711 confirmed cases and just 26 deaths in a state with 1.3 million residents.
“They wouldn’t even consider us unless we weren’t in the good position that we’re in, because they don’t want their people coming back with the disease. I’m also certain they can arrange for the testing on their end when the visitors come back,” Kim said. “I’m very optimistic these are very manageable things.”
Hawaii is the only destination in the United States being considered for Japan’s resumption of international travel. Other destinations Japan has begun discussions with include China, South Korea, Taiwan and several European countries.
Ige noted that details for the Japan-Hawaii safe travel program are still being resolved, and no timetable has been set for when it would take effect.
The governor stressed that public health will be the overriding factor in determining how the program is carried out to support the state’s economic recovery and the tens of thousands of residents who depend on the travel industry for their livelihoods.
“Providing safe travel for both residents and visitors is vital to strengthening our state’s economic health and long-term recovery,” Ige said. “Protecting the public’s health will always be our first priority and the foundation for which any economic recovery program is built upon, including trans-Pacific travel.”
House Speaker Scott Saiki said Hawaii is similar to Japan in that both places worked hard to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He said we’re “getting closer to the point where travel between Japan and Hawaii can be restarted, while staying focused on protecting people’s health.”
“When that occurs, it will be a big step forward to reviving a segment that is important to the overall economic health of Hawaii and its people,” Saiki said.
Kim said he thinks the time has come to also explore the reopening of travel between Hawaii and South Korea.
As of Monday, the country of 51.27 million people, which began a vigorous testing program early in the pandemic, reported slightly more than 14,000 cases of COVID-19 and just 300 deaths.
“These are the countries that banned travel to the United States,” Kim said. “They’re trying to protect their citizens. It’s because of the (infection rate) of Hawaii that Japan, for now … is looking at Hawaii as a place that can be looked into for transitional visiting.”
Asked how quickly he thinks visitor exchanges between Hawaii and the two nations could restart, Kim replied, “As fast as we can cooperatively work with each other.”
“These are the countries that got their infection rates under control because of their policies in regards to testing and isolation and treatment,” Kim said. “They’re safe not because the disease didn’t get there. It got there before it got to the United States. They got to where they are because of their control … of the types of policies that were made as far as testing, isolation and treatment. … Japan and Korea both have instituted systems of testing and control and monitoring that makes them very open to this kind of relationship.
“Lord knows we’ve got to get our economy going.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.