Tracking tourism: Visitor counts, spending ticking up on Hawaii Island

  • Tourists look to capture a Kona sunset on Ali’i Drive. (Tom Linder/West Hawaii Today)

  • A couple walks along Ali’i Drive as the sun sets on Kailua Village. (Tom Linder/West Hawaii Today)

The state of tourism’s return to the Aloha State and Hawaii Island is becoming clearer.

This week, the Hawaii Tourism Authority released visitor statistics for November, showing the extent of the industry’s revival in the first full month of Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program allowing visitors to bypass a 14-day quarantine.

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The good news: compared to November 2019 on the Orchid Isle, per person spending is up 59%, average length of stay is up 80% and hotel capacity has reached about 97% of pre-COVID levels.

The not-so-good news: hotel occupancy rates — 20.4% islandwide — only ticked up less than 1% from October, and visitor arrivals — while nearly tripling from October — are still just 21% of 2019 totals.

In November, 183,779 visitors arrived statewide, more than doubling October’s total. Of these, 28,070 were on Hawaii Island: up from 10,640 in October.

The dramatic increase in average length of stay — more than 13 days per visit to Hawaii Island compared to approximately seven and a half days per visit a year ago — combined with increased visitor spending per person have resulted in total monthly expenditures reaching $54.4 million: 34% of November 2019’s total.

“That’s what we’re hoping is the trend that we can continue even past recovery: fewer visitors staying longer and spending more money,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. “It looks like it’s starting to happen.”

Surging coronavirus cases on the mainland likely stifled visitor counts to some degree. High case counts have made the process of getting tested within 72 hours of departure difficult in some areas of the mainland.

“The testing availability and capability for those to test prior to coming has been a huge challenge to overcome, which has kept our numbers from being higher than they could have been,” said Birch, noting that despite their challenges, he feels both the pre-testing program and the Big Island’s second test upon arrival have contributed to keeping case counts low on-island. “I think they’re exactly what’s kept us in a position to be able to keep our numbers low, keep us a safe place.”

A Nov. 24 change to the pre-travel testing program, requiring a negative test result prior to departure in order to avoid a 14-day quarantine — in contrast to the previous policy that allowed travelers without results to quarantine until a negative result was received — has also put a dent in arrivals.

“That has greatly affected us. We have cancellations every day: people who can’t get on the plane because their test did not come through,” said Jason Cohn, president of tour company Hawaii Forest & Trail. “Just this morning, we had somebody cancel three private tours because their testing didn’t come through. For us, being in the situation we’re in now, that’s a full week’s worth of work for a guide.”

Moving forward, preliminary December numbers are encouraging; passenger arrivals to the Big Island are on pace to approach 40,000 in the 2020’s final month. Buoyed by a handful of new factors – Kilauea’s latest eruption, Kauai’s reimplementation of a mandatory visitor quarantine and a newly-passed federal COVID relief bill – there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the outlook Big Island’s tourism industry in the coming months. Kilauea in particular represents a significant new draw for tourists.

“We have seen a sudden increase in demand for volcano tours since the eruption, for sure,” said Cohn. “It went from almost nothing to being our second most popular tour behind our Mauna Kea summit experience.”

Altogether, this combination of factors creates promising yet tempered expectations for early 2021. HTA’s updated seat outlook projects 106,053 scheduled nonstop seats to Kona in February. Coupled with the current rate those seats are being filled and the increased visitor spending, this projection suggests total visitor expenditures in Hawaii County could approach half of pre-COVID totals by the first quarter of 2021.

“January and February were phenomenal months in 2020: the best the island’s ever seen,” Birch said. “If we’re coming in close to 50% of what our expenditures were for those two months, I think we are well ahead of the game on the recovery side.”

“We are optimistic that 2021 is going to be a better year than 2020,” Cohn added, noting he expects the increases to be gradual. “I don’t think anybody’s hoping that things are going to instantly return to what they were in terms of numbers of visitors. We can’t handle that right now.”

Hawaii County mayor Mitch Roth was hesitant to read too much into projections months away, instead choosing to remain focused on the more immediate future. He touted Hawaii’s AlohaSafe Alert app — a tool he hopes more people will take advantage of — and the Big Island’s arrival testing program as key components that have kept case counts low. In the coming days and weeks, avoiding a post-holiday surge comparable to the state’s summer peak was his big concern.

“A lot is going to depend on what happens in the next couple of weeks with COVID; I’m very hopeful that we can keep our numbers down,” Roth said. “Hopefully people stay safe.”

Future funding for Hawaii County’s program testing all arrivals is one of the most pressing issues the new mayor faces. Private funds that have kept the program going are scheduled to expire Jan. 15. Roth is confident the federal COVID relief bill will provide the funding to extend the program.

“We are hoping that they actually take over prior to Jan. 15; there’s a lot of money (in the bill) for testing,” Roth said. “We’re working on several different measures to ensure it goes forward. My hope is that within the next week or so, we’re able to see something.”

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With 2020 at a close, Roth was quick to give credit to the Hawaii Island community for pulling together in what has proven to be a challenging year.

“We’ve been very fortunate on this island; we’ve had some really great people who have stepped up,” he said. “It goes to our kuleana; our island is showing a lot of responsibility.”

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