Visitor numbers on upward trend despite pandemic

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Nearly twice as many visitors arrived in the state in June than in May, despite the ongoing ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The total number of visitors to Hawaii is still a fraction of what it was last year. But it has been on the rise since bottoming out in April at about 4,500. Visitor numbers rebounded back up to 9,000 in May and nearly doubled again in June, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

The HTA reports 17,068 people arrived to the state by air in June, less than 2% of the nearly 1 million who visited in June 2019. Hawaii Island’s share of the visitors was commensurate, receiving 2,617 visitors in June, 2% of the total from the previous June.

To date this year, tourism to the state is down by 60%.

According to HTA polling data, 2,500 of the June visitors said they visited the state for pleasure or vacation. The majority of June visitors — about 9,000 — claimed they did so to visit friends or relatives, with “other business” being the second most cited reason.

While tourists appear to be returning to the state, despite an ongoing mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement, the tourism industry will not rebound overnight after that requirement is loosened Sept. 1 to allow those with negative pre-arrival COVID-19 tests to avoid quarantine.

Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott’s Lodge &Hiking Adventures, said he is scraping by on a “smattering” of guests who are willing to quarantine at his hotel. However, the tour group portion of his business, like many tour companies around the island, suspended all operations and will likely not resume immediately in September.

“We need volume to start up again, and weirdly, volume requires volume,” Arnott said, explaining that the insurance premiums required to send a tour van up Maunakea — a destination he still gets inquiries about, he added — make it a financially losing deal without the guarantee of consistent business.

“Someone’s going (to) have to be the first person to put their foot forward, and if there’s enough demand, we can try,” he said.

Arnott said the enormous costs of insurance are looming large over his business’ continued viability, but added that he also has had to pay pier parking fees to the state for the last several months, despite no cruise ships arriving. Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Lines pushed back restarting cruises until November.

Arnott added that, because most tourist-facing businesses had to lay off workers to cope with the lack of demand, they will have to make new hires when visitors return, which will be an “administrative nightmare,” particularly when there is no guarantee the state won’t shut down tourism again after a spike in COVID-19 cases, as Florida did.

“We’re holding on because we don’t have debt,” Arnott said. “We own our vans, we own our building. But I feel bad for the businesses that did things the normal way and borrowed money.”

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Other major tour companies, including Hawaii Forest and Trail and Kapohokine Adventures, did not respond to requests for comment.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.