Visitor numbers on upward trend despite pandemic

Nearly twice as many visitors arrived in the state in June than in May, despite the ongoing ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the total number of visitors to the state is still a fraction of what it was last year, the number of visitors is increasing from previous months. The number of visitors bottomed out in April at about 4,500, but rebounded back up to 9,000 in May and nearly doubled again in June, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

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The HTA reports that 17,068 people arrived to the state by air in June, less than 2% of the nearly 1 million who visited the state in June 2019. Hawaii Island’s share of the visitors was commensurate, receiving 2,617 visitors in June, 2% of the total from the previous June.

This year to date, tourism to the state is down by 60%.

According to HTA polling data, 2,500 of the June visitors said they visited the state for pleasure or vacation. The majority of June visitors – about 9,000 — claimed they did so to visit friends or relatives, with “other business” being the second-most cited reason.

While tourists appear to be returning to the state, despite an ongoing mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement, the tourism industry will not rebound overnight after that requirement is loosened Sept. 1 to allow those with negative pre-arrival COVID-19 tests to avoid quarantine.

Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott’s Lodge &Hiking Adventures, said he is scraping by on a “smattering” of guests who are willing to quarantine at his hotel. However, the tour group portion of his business, like many tour companies around the island, has suspended all operations and will likely not resume immediately in September.

“We need volume to start up again, and weirdly, volume requires volume,” Arnott said, explaining that the insurance premiums required to send a tour van up to Maunakea — a destination he still gets inquiries about, he added — make it a financially losing deal without the guarantee of consistent business.

“Someone’s going have to be the first person to put their foot forward, and if there’s enough demand, we can try,” he said.

Arnott said the enormous costs of insurance are looming large over his business’ continued viability, but added that he also has had to pay pier parking fees to the state for the last several months, despite no cruise ships arriving. Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Lines has pushed back reopening cruises until November.

Arnott added that, because most tourist-facing businesses have had to lay off workers to cope with the lack of demand, they will have to make new hires when visitors return, which will be an “administrative nightmare,” particularly when there is no guarantee that the state won’t close tourism again after a spike in COVID-19 cases, as Florida did.

“We’re holding on because we don’t have debt,” Arnott said. “We own our vans, we own our building. But I feel bad for the businesses that did things the normal way and borrowed money.”

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Other major tour companies, including Hawaii Forest and Trail and Kapohokine Adventures, did not respond to requests for comment.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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