Like most travel dreams during the pandemic, a visit to Hawaii became untenable once the state started issuing strict self-quarantine orders for all arrivals in March. Since then, Hawaii has been developing its Safe Travels program to bring tourists back safely, and on Oct. 15, the state began to allow visitors to bypass the 14-day quarantine if they could provide negative covid-19 test results.
In addition to fears of new cases brought by tourists, residents have had their own outbreaks to handle. On Tuesday, Hawaii’s governor issued a stay-at-home order and travel restrictions for the island of Lanai after the state Department of Health reported 79 infections in the community.
As the state’s tourism numbers continue to climb, how do Hawaii locals feel about receiving visitors? We spoke to six to find out what they want mainland visitors to know before booking a trip.
“My honest opinion: Please don’t come yet.”
While the pandemic has been economically devastating for many Hawaii residents, some say the pause in tourism has been regenerative for the islands.
“Our water has never been so clear. I notice a dramatic difference in our ocean, in all of our natural resources,” says Lesley Cummings, co-owner of Aloha Missions, a Maui lifestyle brand that supports the local region through community service projects. “It’s like the island needed a break.”
Cummings is not sure it’s the right time for tourism to return in full force.
“My honest opinion: Please don’t come yet,” she says, adding that her opinion is grounded in the fact that she has not been severely impacted financially by the drop in tourism. “If you were to delay your trip until this pandemic settles down, I think our local community would welcome you more with that aloha spirit ... . For the most part, I don’t think our community is there.”
Should tourists decide to visit nonetheless, Cummings asks that visitors show respect to the local community by following local coronavirus guidelines and supporting local businesses as much as possible.
“When we both wear masks, I malama you and you malama me."
If people feel inspired to make a trip to Hawaii, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and chief executive officer, John De Fries, believes Hawaii is ready to welcome back tourists thanks to protections in place, such as its pre-travel testing program.
“Each of the segments of the [travel] industry — starting with the airport, ground transportation, hotels — have all been preparing for months. There are covid health and safety standards and protocols,” De Fries says. “Some of those are set by national or local trade associations in concert with the CDC and Hawaii’s State Department of Health."
Coronavirus prevention responsibility is not solely on Hawaiians. De Fries says there’s a new need to educate visitors on ways to protect locals, pointing to the Hawaiian word malama, which means to protect, care for or to nurture.
“In the islands, you hear it used in referring to natural resources. Malama the land, malama the ocean,” he says. “We are entering a long-term recovery where we need to malama ourselves, malama our families, one another. Malama the visitor and in turn, teach the visitor how to malama us as a place and as a people.”
Part of that, De Fries says, is simply promoting the basics, such as wearing a mask in public places and practicing social distancing.
“When we both wear masks, I malama you and you malama me,” he says.
"I would rather have it open, hustling and bustling again.”
Matty Kua, bar manager of The Pig and The Lady in downtown Honolulu, was initially happy to have Hawaii for locals only.
“Locals got to return to Waikiki and enjoy it a little bit,” he says. “But it kind of got old. I would rather have it open, hustling and bustling again.”
Kua is feeling excited to have visitors return to Hawaii to get the economy running again, as a lot of the state’s workforce has been negatively impacted by the tourism shutdown.
But even as Kua is worried that keeping visitors away will lead to more small businesses permanently closing, he is still concerned that an uptick in travel will lead to a major spike in coronavirus cases.
Kua recommends visitors stick to major destinations like Oahu instead of smaller, more remote options for now.
“We really want people to come back."
Peter Shaindlin, the chief operating officer of the hotel company Halekulani Corp., says the break in tourism has been restorative for the island.
“Seawater, coral reefs, trails, nature preserves, on and on — natural environments have restored themselves over almost eight months of almost no tourist exposure,” Shaindlin says. “It’s been a wonderful opportunity to regroup and refresh in anticipation of the [tourist] return that’s beginning now.”
Hawaii’s coronavirus prevention programs give Shaindlin confidence in tourism’s safe return. Halekulani Corp.’s properties remain closed, but the company is continuing to pay employee health benefits until they reopen.
Shaindlin says the only way of to keep tourism going is by complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local guidelines, such as wearing a mask at all times in public.
“When [Hawaii locals] see unmasked visitors, they feel unsafe, and they also feel it’s disrespectful,” he says. “Remember, these are the people that are going to be serving you while you’re here.”
“I don’t think there’s one answer."
Martha Cheng, a writer and food editor of Honolulu Magazine, has enjoyed how quiet Hawaii has felt during the pandemic without tourists. Cheng, who lives on the edge of Waikiki, says it’s cool to see locals returning to parts of Hawaii that once were too overcrowded.
“It almost feels like we’re rediscovering our island, and parts of it that we didn’t go to because there were too many tourists,” she says. “Are they going to keep coming back even when the tourists are back, or are they going to feel crowded out again? I don’t know.”
Cheng, who also wrote By The Way’s City Guide to Honolulu, says reopening is conflicting. For many locals, having the island closed has been nice, but “on the other hand, there’s also like wide swaths of the population where it’s been devastating,” she says. “I don’t think there’s one answer. I just wish we had been taking the time to really start developing what else can we do for the economy other than tourism?”
Cheng asks that those who visit Hawaii during the pandemic take coronavirus precautions seriously.
“If you think [covid-19] is a non-issue and you’re not willing to abide to some of the regulations and rules that we have here for trying to keep it from spreading, then I would say definitely do not come," she says.
"To me, the pre-testing makes sense, and it feels safe.”
Compared to many states, Hawaii has been uniquely vulnerable during the pandemic, says Honolulu chef Kevin Ching.
“We’re so dependent on tourism,” he says. “It’s been this weird Sophie’s Choice this whole time. ... It’s been really tough to know when was the appropriate time to [reopen]."
Ching says locals are bracing for the impact of reopening to tourists. However, Ching welcomes the return of tourism for economic reasons, as long as visitors follow local protocols, even if there’s no guarantee they are foolproof.
“Every action we take is an experiment. It’s never been done before. There’s no data,” he says. “But to me, the pre-testing makes sense, and it feels safe.”
Ching says one good thing about Hawaii is that some of its best qualities are free and outdoors.
“If [tourists are] just going hiking and to the beach and picnicking outdoors and things like that, to me, that sounds to be the most responsible way to enjoy Hawaii right now,” he says.