Japanese travel plan nearly set

  • Jonathan Hakim, center, talks with Georgia Calimeres after eating lunch Monday at The Booch Bar in Hilo. Hawaii is almost ready for a return of visitors from Japan, according to Gov. David Ige, which is expected to help bolster the economy throughout the state. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

  • Jonathan Hakim, center, talks with Georgia Calimeres after eating lunch at The Booch Bar in Hilo on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. Masks must be worn in restaurants unless patrons are actively eating and drinking. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Gov. David Ige said Monday his administration is “very close” to being able to announce plans for the return of Japanese visitors to the state.

Ige told the state House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness the announcement likely will be made in the next week or so.

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“We had a good meeting two weeks ago with member of the Japanese (legislature) about the travel bubble …,” Ige said, adding he had a follow-up meeting with Japan’s consul general to Hawaii.

“We continue to get requests from international partners — Canada and South Korea, which is the two next-largest international markets for travelers to Hawaii,” Ige told members of the committee, which is comprised of legislators and tourism and business leaders.

“I’m definitely wanting to establish the travel bubbles,” he said, in reference to allowing people from specific countries to visit Hawaii under certain conditions, such as pre-travel testing.

Ross Birch, executive director of the Hawaii Island Visitors Bureau, told the Tribune-Herald earlier this month that the organization Hawaii Tourism Japan has an initial marketing campaign ready to go to attract Japanese visitors, and Japan Airlines could be flying into Kailua-Kona sometime in November if the establishment of COVID-19 testing partners in Japan goes smoothly.

The state Department of Health earlier this month approved a COVID-19 pre-travel testing plan by the Japanese government that will allow travelers from Japan to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Hawaii.

Ige called the pre-travel COVID-19 testing program, which opened up mainland tourism to Hawaii with fewer quarantines as of Oct. 15, “was the biggest contribution to … reviving our economy that we’ve made so far.”

According to the governor, the 37,000-plus trans-Pacific travelers arriving in Hawaii between Oct. 15-18 — more than 9,000 daily — “clearly exceeded my expectations of what would happen.”

Ige said the numbers a week later, between Oct. 22-25, were “more than 29,000 travelers.”

“It’s dropped a little, but it’s still over 7,000 a day on the weekend … and I do think that’s probably what we would see moving forward, as we least as we approach the holidays,” he added.

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis “showed Hawaii’s real (gross domestic product) had fallen 42% in the second quarter, and that we are in the unenviable position of having the weakest economy in the country.”

According to Bonham, however, other economic data since tourism’s reopening showed that “employees at work, hours worked (and) small business revenue have all turned up since the last economic report,” and said it appears to be “the beginning of a rebound.”

“More job advertisements, more people spending more time at work, suggest that we may see a recovery in the jobs numbers in the October data — at least that’s the hope,” Bonham said.

Bonham echoed Ige’s evaluation that tourist arrivals are exceeding expectations.

“We have seen a more rapid return of visitors, certainly, than we had built into our baseline forecast,” he said. “We have assumed … we’d have about 10% of the visitors that we saw in the second half of last October.

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“And these numbers suggest … that percentage is somewhere between 15 to 20% right now.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.