EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a limited series looking back on the year since COVID-19 arrived in Maui County. Each story will explore an industry directly impacted and reshaped by the pandemic. Today’s feature focuses on travel and tourism.
For a time last year, occupancy at hotels across the Valley Isle hit zero, thousands of idled rental cars overflowed into the pastures behind Kahului Airport and air arrivals dropped nearly 98 percent when the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic rippled across the state.
Streets and skies were nearly empty of vehicles and planes, and most coastlines were clear of beachgoers, surf schools and tour boats.
For many, the decline in traffic and bustle was welcome. But without all the activity, many businesses and residents whose incomes are dependent on the visitor, travel or hospitality industry struggled with layoffs, furloughs and other financial burdens.
One year later, Hawaii’s travel and tourism industries are turning the page to a “new normal,” a term that has been tossed around throughout the pandemic and at times still feels like a moving target.
Travel screeches to a halt
Maui County was averaging about 260,522 arrivals per month in 2019 until the pandemic halted nearly all airline operations in early 2020. By May, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that visitor arrivals by air to Hawaii had decreased by 98.9 percent, and no cruise ships were allowed.
“I think it’s something that all of us in the industry remember vividly, remembering exactly where we were when it became clear when we would have to close things down, and it came over the course of a few weeks,” said Avi Mannis, senior vice president of marketing for Hawaiian Airlines. “We had to look at our entire network and figure out how to close down, which was harder than any of us, I think, had ever imagined.”
At Kahului Airport, Hawaiian Airlines and Mokulele — which merged with Hawaii’s only other commuter airline, Makani Kai Air, in the middle of the pandemic — anxiously waited to take off again after having to suspend many flights, pivot their business models and modify boarding gate operations, in-flight services and TSA checkpoint procedures.
Employees were trying to juggle their jobs while handling an overwhelming amount of flight change requests or cancellations, newly formatted airport layouts and employee workspaces and “constantly evolving” protocols, Mannis said.
“Even though we were making all these changes, we were still operating at the same time, so there was no point in time where we weren’t continuing to fly and have some level of service for both passengers and for cargo,” he said. “So I give a huge amount of credit to the people working on the front lines of our operation who, through all of this, were coming in every day and learning what new things we had to do while we were operating, because we really were building as were running.”
Travel rules were dependent on case counts; in June Gov. David Ige lifted the interisland quarantine only to reimpose it in August as infections went back up. A pre-travel testing program that was supposed to launch in August was pushed to mid-October, allowing incoming residents and visitors to bypass the mandatory 14-day quarantine — later reduced to 10 days — if they could present a negative COVID-19 test.
The pre-travel COVID-19 test had to be taken from an approved testing partner within 72 hours of departure, which made planning trips more difficult but also helped combat the spread of the virus.
“From Mokulele’s standpoint, we have always been an airline that has been dependent on the local commuters as opposed to visitors,” Chief Marketing Officer Keith Sisson said on Thursday. “This pandemic has really reemphasized just how important the locals are to the financial viability of the airline. We could not have made it without our daily commuters.”
The state’s Safe Travels program also changed the typical traveler’s routine — it now meant filling out health questionnaires and having temperature screenings, downloading contact tracing apps, wearing a face mask throughout the whole trip, having middle seats open on the flight and receiving complimentary snacks in separate goodie bags — if food and drinks were available at all.
“We want to return to delivering more hospitality and service and interaction that we know our guests really value,” said Mannis, who feels that some of the more tedious screening measures “need to go away” once they are no longer essential.
“Airports weren’t really built to conduct the screening of every person who’s getting off their flight, so I think that will be hard to sustain as travel returns to normal,” he said.
Sisson said “it is too early to tell” what COVID-19 protocols will remain for airports and air carriers after the vaccination rollout, but he anticipates most sanitization practices are here to stay.
“There are multiple non-COVID reasons to permanently adopt those cleaning procedures,” he said.
Hawaiian Airlines, which took on “an excess of $1 billion in debt,” is doing better now, Mannis said, and “we are optimistic about what the future holds.”
“One of the things that’s important to underscore is we are a big business,” he said. “A lot of the local businesses that have struggled have been small family-owned businesses that don’t have access to the kinds of resources to weather something like this and I think it’s been very difficult for them, and we have a lot of empathy for businesses who struggled over the course of the pandemic as well.”
The threat of layoffs still hangs over Hawaiian Airlines employees, after the company said that it planned to lay off more than 800 workers in April and June. However, the airline later said it would delay the first wave until May 1 and that things could change.
A decline in flights also forced the company to suspend ‘Ohana by Hawaiian service in January, a blow to Molokai and Lanai residents who depended on the larger aircraft for off-island appointments and transportation of cargo. Officials have said they are unsure when demand will recover enough to resume the service.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesperson Alex Da Silva said that by April, the airline will have restored about 85 percent of the Mainland flights and 49 percent of the Neighbor Island flights that it flew before the pandemic.
“Our international flying remains restricted due to government-imposed restrictions, though we have been able to restore some service between Hawaii and South Korea and Japan,” Da Silva said.
There were 2,556 total trans-Pacific flights, or about 91 per day, servicing the state in February, according to HTA. To compare, the state averaged 172 flights and filled 38,186 seats per day in February 2020, shortly before the pandemic.
On the ground, there was a lot less traffic as residents began working from home, the use of rental cars dramatically declined and tour companies suspended operations.
Ige also instructed the state Department of Transportation to place signs along Hana Highway to notify drivers that the highway between Kaupakalua Road and Hana was restricted to residents, first responders and delivery trucks only.
“My initial reaction was how will we be able to make it through the shutdown financially, both the farm stand as well as our employees and my family,” said Haiku resident Ramana Sawyer, who manages the popular Twin Falls pit stop and farm stand.
The farm stand, which makes most of its sales from tourists, closed March 18, 2020, and didn’t reopen until Oct. 11, losing about 75 percent of its yearly income.
And, like many businesses that relied on the visitor industry, financial aid like Paycheck Protection Program loans, Economic Injury Disaster loans, unemployment benefits, grants, food vouchers and more become available to “ease the burden considerably,” Sawyer said Friday.
But 2020 wasn’t all bad.
“It turned into gratitude for the down time,” he said. “Slower paced days, more beach time, less crowded beaches, no traffic on the roads, taught the boys how to ride bikes, worked in the garden and cleared and planted gulch areas with fruit trees, bananas and coconuts.”
Over this past year, Sawyer said that the island “definitely learned how acutely dependent we are on visitors.”
“We, as well as many others, would like to see more attention and focus on local economies and quality of life for residents being equally or perhaps more important than the dollars that the visitor industry provides,” he said. “That being said, this pandemic gave a newfound appreciation for our island community as well as our visitors, and I believe there are many mutually beneficial ways to provide what each group needs to be content and satisfied as they live on or visit Maui.”
‘Comfort and luxury’ to ‘health and safety’
When traffic at Kahului Airport slowed a year ago, so did the foot traffic into local restaurants and hotels, which had housed nearly 60 percent (about 1.3 million) of all air travelers to Hawaii in 2019.
Hotel occupancy rates and revenue were growing substantially prior to the onset of COVID-19, with the Wailea area having the highest room revenue in the state, at $628 per room, along with 85 percent occupancy in 2019.
But by mid-2020, no guests were checking in and more than 1,500 hotel workers at the Andaz Maui at Wailea, the Fairmont Kea Lani and the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa lost their jobs.
Rod Antone, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, added that at one point last year, more than 10,000 workers at hotels, timeshares and condos were filing for unemployment.
Visitors are now returning to the islands, and room occupancy is rising to 30 to 40 percent. Antone is forecasting an increase in April and then a decrease in May.
HTA’s Hawaii Vacation Rental Performance Report showed that Maui County’s vacation rental occupancy rose to 52.5 percent in February, the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic last March.
Not all, but many employees are returning to work, Antone said.
“The gold standard for Maui properties used to be comfort and luxury, and now it’s health and safety,” he added. “Not just for guests but for employees and the community as well.”
While he pandemic has proven to be challenging for the hospitality industry, the state’s shift toward a more “digital world was a good thing.”
“Less paper waste, less contact, quicker turnaround,” Antone said Thursday. “You no longer have a paper bill handed to you, you download menus using a QR code, the valet wears gloves and takes your temperature as well as your luggage. Housekeepers clean the common areas every day but guest rooms are upon request or after checkout. These changes are for the better.”
Antone said he anticipates that face coverings and social distancing will still be a part of hotels’ health and safety protocols “even after a majority of folks get the vaccine.”
“The industry is fine with that,” he said. “We have always followed the guidelines set by government health officials.”
The pandemic also intensified longtime conversations about how to decrease Hawaii’s dependence on tourism and address the impacts of millions of visitors coming to the islands every year.
HTA met virtually in October to discuss a draft strategic plan that would help satisfy both the resident and visitor experience statewide, as well as slowly increase revenue while counties recover from COVID-19.
To achieve the state’s long-term vision by 2025, HTA representatives said that they will focus on respecting natural and cultural resources, supporting Native Hawaiian culture and community, ensuring that tourism and communities enrich each other, strengthening tourism contributions and managing island resources.
Each county will have its own Destination Management Action Plan on rebooting the economy while managing tourism; Maui County’s 2021-23 version of the plan was released earlier this month — not the first and likely not the last attempt to reshape the travel and tourism industry in the wake of the pandemic.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at email@example.com.