A paper released this week by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization suggests that Hawaii tourism could take years to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic — if it does at all.
The paper, titled “The Future of Travel and Tourism After the COVID-19 Pandemic And Implications for Hawaii,” draws comparisons between the nationwide impacts to the tourism industry caused by the pandemic and 9/11, pointing out that, even in 2017, a poll showed that 32% of Americans were still fearful of air travel because of memories of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
With the economic impacts and death toll of the pandemic far exceeding those of 9/11, the paper’s authors — economists Paul Brewbaker, Frank Haas and James Mak — suggest that the travel industry will take commensurately longer to rebound, and longer still in a remote place like Hawaii.
“Health experts warn that COVID-19 may be with us for years,” the paper states. “Because Hawaii is already an expensive place to visit, making some of the current health protocols permanent will render a Hawaii vacation even more expensive. … That doesn’t include the expected rise in travel costs associated with measures to address climate change that might be added on top of that.”
The paper notes that according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of U.S. domestic air passengers has gradually begun improving after falling in April by nearly 96% compared to 2019. The same has not happened with Hawaii air passengers, which are still more than 90% fewer than they were last year.
Most of the visitors who have arrived in the state are not typical tourists, either, the paper notes: “They tend to be younger, traveling in smaller parties, stay much longer, are frequent visitors, and a large percentage of them are visiting friends and relatives.”
However, the paper also suggests that a decline in Hawaii tourism was already expected to occur in the next few decades, and that the current collapse of the travel industry is an opportunity for the state to rethink its tourism strategy and diversify the economy.
“The rush to employ technology in travel and tourism spurred on by the pandemic is both a plus and a minus,” the paper reads. “Technological applications that improve efficiency is a plus. On the minus side, as capital and technology replace labor, one wonders how the tourism experience will be forever altered. What does the ‘Aloha spirit’ mean when visitors are increasingly served by robots, and artificial intelligence replaces human interaction?”
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