Hawaii travel gaining momentum

  • A group of people tour and exit on of the lava tubes at Kaumana Caves in Hilo on March 15.

  • Sophie and Bob Greeno look at items for their family while shopping around Big Island Candies in Hilo on Thursday. (Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

Hawaii tourism appears to be gaining momentum.

There has been an uptick in trans-Pacific travel to the islands in March, likely fueled by a combination of spring break visitors and COVID-19 vaccinations.

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According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, 221,605 screened trans-Pacific passengers arrived in Hawaii between March 1 and Thursday, an average of 13,426 arrivals daily. That’s compared to 280,127 screened arrivals statewide in February, an average of 10,005 passengers a day.

Of those March trans-Pacific arrivals, 37,305 of them touched down on Hawaii Island, an average of 2,073 arrivals daily.

The vast majority, 36,365, arrived at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole.

There were 44,904 trans-Pacific arrivals in Kailua-Kona for the month of February.

Big Island figures don’t include passengers who arrived in Hawaii in Honolulu and Maui and caught a connecting flight to Hilo or Kona.

Those increased numbers still are a far cry from visitor arrivals in March 2019, a year before Gov. David Ige declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.

HTA numbers reflect 939,064 visitor arrivals in Hawaii that month — almost 30,000 a day — with 168,850 of those visiting the Big Island. The agency’s online archives don’t specify how many of those visitors arrived here without a stop on another island first.

Travel Leaders Network, the largest network of travel agencies in North America, conducted a nationwide online research survey of past and current clients from Feb. 6 to March 2 to gauge their readiness to travel.

According to a TLN statement issued March 15, the survey found 85% said they have already been vaccinated or planned to get vaccinated when eligible, one in three have already booked their next vacation, and 62% are planning to take their next vacation in 2021.

The survey also found 44% of those traveling said they had already been vaccinated, and 41% said they planned to get vaccinated when eligible. Only 8% said they did not plan to get vaccinated, while another 8% said they haven’t decided yet.

“This data is interesting because it suggests travel is a big factor in motivating many people, particularly seniors, who are the most at risk of serious illness or hospitalization from COVID-19, to get vaccinated,” said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group. “Compare this traveler population, with a 44% already-vaccinated rate, to the general population, where only one in seven have already been vaccinated.”

Wendy Laros, president and CEO of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, said there “is definitely higher occupancy” recently in West Hawaii hotels and resorts.

“We’ve heard up to 80% in some of the hotels. That’s fantastic,” Laros said Friday. She said the visitors are representative “of the regular folks who come whether it’s summer or Christmas or spring break.”

According to Laros, because of differing spring break schedules at mainland colleges, Kona typically has a spike in younger visitors through April.

“The next four to five weeks should be really good,” she said. “There’s an anticipation of a little bit of a lull in May, but everyone is hopeful for June, July and August — and the bookings are definitely on the rise in the industry, from what we hear.”

And while Kona has been the primary destination for the recent increase in tourism, many of the visitors make it to East Hawaii — especially to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Jessica Ferracane, the park’s spokeswoman, said HVNP has seen an increase in visitors, especially since March 13 — the date which, so far, has had the most daily trans-Pacific arrivals, both statewide and in Kona — with 21,433 and 3,169, respectively.

“Definitely, we’ve seen an increase in trans-Pacific visitors since (March 13), but we’ve also seen an increase in local visitation since the summit eruption (of Kilauea volcano) began on Dec. 20,” Ferracane said.

Ferracane it “would make sense” to attribute the rise in trans-Pacific visitors to a combination of “people getting vaccinated” plus those “definitely in the age group of spring break.”

According to HVNP, the visitor count between March 13-16 was 6,368 people over the four-day period. That’s a 74% increase over the 3,658 people who visited the park in the four-day period two weeks earlier, Feb. 27-March 2.

While it represents a recent increase in visitor numbers, it’s still 26% down from the 8,586 park visitors over the four-day period of March 14-17, 2020, in the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also just 54% of the 11,783 people who visited the park during the four-day period of March 16-19, 2019.

A popular shopping spot for tourists in Hilo, Big Island Candies, also has experienced an increase in foot traffic, according to company spokesman Lance Duyao.

“I’ve noticed an uptick in travelers, for sure, coming into our store. It’s been more since spring break, for sure, this week, but we’ve noticed the past couple of weeks there has been an uptick,” Duyao said, and noted most were adults “in their 60s and down.”

Prior to the pandemic, tour buses were a common sight in the parking lot of the confectioner’s store on Hinano Street. Duyao said “discussions have started” about their return.

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“People certainly want to make sure that they have all the protocols down, because everyone wants to do it safely,” he said.

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

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