Late last month, Hawaii Gov. David Ige made a plea to tourists: Put travel plans on hold until at least the end of October. The highly contagious delta variant had increased the state’s hospitalizations, straining the hospital system.
“Our hospitals are reaching capacity, and our ICUs are filling up,” he said Aug. 23. “Now is not a good time to travel to Hawaii.”
Ige’s message didn’t stop tourism altogether — just before Labor Day, travel to Maui exceeded pre-pandemic levels — but it did seem to slow visitors.
Mufi Hannemann, president and chief operating officer of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, told local media that since the governor’s request to halt nonessential travel, “the industry has seen cancellations increase and occupancy cut nearly in half in some instances.” Tourism officials reported more than 50,000 room cancellations in Maui County.
But how do locals in tourism — both big and small — who depend on travelers feel about the slowdown? Tourism officials have stood by the governor, but others feel that if you are going to visit, there are safe ways to do it.
“We are strongly advising visitors that now is not the right time to travel,” John De Fries, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said in a news release on the same day as Ige’s message.
Hawaii tourism surged when the islands reopened to visitors in October 2020, and they have been plagued by bad tourist behavior, from blocking roads for photo ops to being caught with fake vaccination cards.
Andrew Fowers, co-founder of the Hawaii audio tour company Shaka Guide, agrees with tourism officials that travelers “absolutely should postpone their trips,” he said in an email. “As a Hawaii resident myself, I’m concerned about the rise in case numbers and the strain on our health care system.”
If a traveler wants to keep the Hawaii plans, Fowers encourages that person to be vaccinated and tested ahead of the trip. Additionally, he advises travelers to be responsible during their trip and to do their research about local coronavirus protocols ahead of time.
And those protocols are changing.
Local governments and businesses are going beyond the state’s Safe Travels program, which requires visitors to either be vaccinated or test negative ahead of their trip.
For example, this month, the islands of Maui and Oahu started requiring patrons of various indoor establishments — such as restaurants, libraries bars and gyms — to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to enter. A number of hotels across Hawaii are moving to require proof of vaccination to enter their properties. Hawaiian Airlines released an in-flight video encouraging visitors “to explore with care, offering your kokua (help) to preserve our natural resources, cultures and communities.”
Maile Anderson, a jewelry maker who lives in Maui, also implores visitors in Hawaii to be respectful. After seeing her town without tourists during the early pandemic lockdown, the return of travelers has been jarring.
“I live in Paia, and pretty much around lunchtime every single restaurant has a line out the door — and my town isn’t the main tourist town,” Anderson said. “There are no hotels, it’s a 30-minute drive from the two main tourist areas, and I’ve noticed that my little town has been crazy with traffic.”
Anderson says the impact of tourism’s return to Hawaii goes beyond long lines and traffic. Tension between locals and visitors grew with the rise of tourists’ bad behavior.
“I think maybe they had just been cooped up and hadn’t been able to travel for so long … they weren’t really respecting the island or the rules or the locals,” she said. “It’s been really sad and frustrating for a lot of people.”
Still, Anderson recognizes the importance of tourism for Hawaii’s economy, and she welcomes tourists if they feel safe visiting.
Her one request is for visitors to “respect the locals, respect the rules of the road,” she said. “The people of Hawaii are so nice and so welcoming, but if you’re not friendly to them, then of course we’re not going to want them to come.”
Garrett Marrero, the founder of Hawaii’s largest craft brewery, Maui Brewing Company, has seen poorly behaved tourists during the pandemic, “but I would also argue that I’ve seen many visitors come with the best of intentions and leave saying that they’ll never come back to Hawaii because they didn’t feel welcome,” he said.
Marrero said he feels that the local “don’t come here” rhetoric is putting visitors on the defensive, creating a negative feedback loop.
“I would say you get what you give, and if you want aloha, you’ve got to give aloha,” he said. “So I don’t believe fully that tourists are the sole causation of this strife.”
Bob Jones, a journalist in Hawaii who reports on local issues via his blog, said he believes the issue goes deeper than tourist behavior or coronavirus risks. Angst over overtourism had been festering before the pandemic, and the confluence of the coronavirus and tourists created a flash point.
“Because of [the pandemic], we really saw the difference if we didn’t have so many people,” Jones said. “People could actually just go and walk up Diamond Head without being in a crowd of 150 people trying to get to the top at the same time.”
Once the coronavirus situation has been resolved, Jones expects the issue to get worse. International visitors will add to the overtourism problem if the state doesn’t come up with a solution to address local concerns.
For those grappling with whether to visit Hawaii at this time, Marrero’s take is that he “would leave it to the individual to make that decision,” he said. “If Hawaii was your home community and you were seeing a surge, would it be the right thing to do to come to that community? How would you feel?”
He added: “If you do choose to come, you need to be responsible for the safety of yourself and others,” Marrero said. “That is mask-wearing and complying with the rules.”