Living in a Tourist Destination During a Pandemic
Many people have asked me, “What is Hawaii like during the Pandemic?” And instantly it begins with a groan and an eye roll.
We must begin at the beginning.
When Governor of Hawaii had made two Emergency PSA announcements to stock up for at least two weeks. What almost everyone on the island heard was to stock up so there is nothing left for everyone else. Trying to find essentials has been pretty impossible. Several of us had gone to 3-4+ stores in one day trying to find something, such as toilet paper, any food item, and any cleaning item. While I know it’s not just Hawaii, this had happened before we even had 5 confirmed cases.
Working in the travel industry and working in the heart of Waikiki, you could feel something was changing at the beginning of March. The Tourists from Asia were almost non-existent and the traffic eased. You could tell something was coming, but really couldn’t explain what it was. The closures between Asia and Hawaii came first and hit hard. As Japanese tourists are Hawaii’s main income earner…. then again, Tourism IS Hawaii’s main source of income. I was hoping it was finally slow season, before the pick up with Spring Break. Then, slowly, several vendors began closing their doors and offering refunds. It was a trickle. But people began calling concerned asking about if their tours were still running.
On March 16, all hell broke loose. Pearl Harbor Closed (USS Arizona, Bowfin, Missouri, Aviation Museum). With the closing of Pearl Harbor immediately and indefinitely, almost every vendor shut down as well. Pearl Harbor is the main tourist attraction on the Island of Oahu. From that moment, thousands and thousands of reservations canceled. Hawaii had closed every tour vendor on the island, hour by hour, day by day. Meaning, it was one hell of a week. Chaos, is the only way to truly describe it. Most people were very understanding and super nice about it. While there were others who were not paying attention and we were cussed out, insulted, and mildly threatened. Now, I can completely understand how one can be upset by their vacation plans being ruined. I for one, definitely do understand this. I can also tell you, I wish this was not happening, for your sake and for mine.
(You see, all the tours that have been canceled, I manually booked for you. Which means, I manually have to cancel them, refund, and send a message back to your tour operator who then has to reach out to your travel agent who then reaches out to you. It’s a long process, it takes a lot of time to get the information to get it to you. While we have been working nonstop to make this happen, we are one of many parts. And if you or your travel agent hasn’t been paying attention, officially, we cannot contact you until you are in our destination.)
Also, my birthday is March 27th, and I was celebrating my BIG 3-0. I had some epic birthday plans that I was really looking forward to. I mean, I was in a new place, making some really good friends, but I was still pretty alone at this time (only being here for 7 months). So the Monday before my birthday, when they cancelled my epic birthday plans, I was heartbroken, obviously I knew it was coming, but I could never have imagined what would happen next.
On March 25th, the Governor of Hawaii began our Stay At Home Order. Closing 98% of the whole state. March 26th, we began working from home–with absolutely no information if the system was going to even work (let’s also add, I did not have air conditioning, which was fine at the beginning, but being there 24/7 was horrendous after the first week). March 27th, beginning the Mandatory 14-Day Quarantine for Arrivals (including returning) into Hawaii—the end date for this was May 1, then August 1st, where arrivals did not have to self-quarantine with a Negative COVID Test Result. But by September 13th, this date just kept getting pushed, September 1st, and now October 1st. One of my friends was coming, and she pushed her flight, and then canceled and thought it better to come in March/April.
Masks became mandatory in April, while out Grocery Shopping, getting gas–doing your essential needs. I don’t recall people making it a big deal here as in some places, such as back home in Wisconsin–where it was taken to the Supreme Court and overruled. Everyone here, wore them. Done.
By August many things were open again. Parks, Beaches, Shopping Malls, Restaurants, Bars (some), inter-island flights without quarantine. We had finally begun living a normal life with the threat of Coronavirus. Mind you, Tourism was still closed for Hawaii.
A total of 10,424,995 visitors came to Hawaii in 2019, an increase of 5.4 percent from the 9,888,845 visitors in 2018. A total of 862,574 visitors came to Hawaii in January, an increase of 5.1 percent compared to a year ago. Total visitor days rose 2.0 percent. The average daily census of total visitors in the Hawaiian Islands on any given day in January was 269,421, up 2.0 percent.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected visitor arrivals to the Hawaiian Islands in July 2020. Visitor arrivals dropped 97.7 percent compared to a year ago. In July, a total of 22,562 visitors traveled to Hawaii by air service compared to 995,210 visitors during the same period a year ago.Hawaii Tourism Authority
If you did not know, Hawaii is a Tourism State. While it is an amazing place to live, Tourism is what funds Hawaii. According to ABC News, Maui had a 35% unemployment rate in April, which is 10% higher than during The Great Depression. That, is only one island in the chain. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics it is showing that the State of Hawaii has a July Preliminary Unemployment of 13.1%.
With this, there had been 4 hour wait times for drive up Food Banks. 3+ month long wait for Unemployment Assistance, with over 300 phone calls (per person) daily trying to get through to the Unemployment offices (most of the time, not even getting through). A Facebook Group for Hawaii Unemployment Help and Support, had over 184 thousand people. Today, this group has roughly only 26,500 members.
I was lucky enough to still be employed, although it was only Part Time, I felt lucky. Although overwhelmed trying to figure out how I was going to manage everything. I did just use my savings to move out here, and I was finally getting my Savings Account back (she says with such excitement!). Now, working part time, and still having to pay the same amount of bills with practically no income. On July 1st, I was furloughed, it was only a matter of time. Most of the cancellations were now completed, and no one was really booking to Hawaii anymore. A few with hopes things would be over, but they turned into cancellations not too long after.
At this point, I decided to have a little fun, explore the island a little more. I began to shop small and local, as many of us did. We were all trying really hard to support small businesses instead of watching them close. Trying out new restaurants, which I’ve begun to LOVE! Do things that I haven’t been able to do because of working full time. I was able to go to the beach more, I went hiking, scuba diving, a ton of snorkeling. I felt like I was finally able to live my Hawaii Life. It was amazing! And with the lack of tourists, pricing was down for some things, and up for others, beaches were pretty empty, there was almost no traffic, and there was parking for once. I definitely tried to look at the bright side! I was having so much fun, social distancing, barely seeing or being around people.
Alas, Hawaii’s COVID cases rose, and they closed the beaches and the parks, and a lot of Hiking Trails. This was most concering due to the fact that they had just opened the Movie Theatres (a few days later they closed this again). While, exercising is allowed, parking, really wasn’t. (This was truly upsetting due to restaurants and malls were still open, but they closed outside. The logic, really was not there.) THEN, it was announced, a 2 week Stay At Home Order (Round Two). Then it was extended for an additional 2 weeks.
In addition to no tourism, the big celebration for the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II became virtual. As well as the multi-million dollar revenue of the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise, RIMPAC was kept at sea. Sailors (and other Navy Positions) were able to dock but not able to leave their ships.
When Tourism first opened again, there were lines of hundreds of people waiting to exit the airport–due to having to “sign in” to the State with information on where they will be. The system has changed, such as those with negative COVID test results, tourists were able to skip quarantine, the island of Oahu still had problems. For example, large families that are local to Hawaii were getting tickets for being in groups on some of the beaches (keep in mind, Hawaii has many multigenerational families living under one roof) while tourists congregating in large groups on the beaches were just giving a warning. As well as those not wearing masks were given a warning if they were tourists, but locals were given tickets. This also gave locals a reason of distaste towards law enforcement (as if they needed another one during this time) and tourists.
Granted, this was not everyone. Police did cite the US Surgeon General for gathering in a park that was closed.
Tourism had opened and locals were still waiting to be able to go to a hair or nail salon, a tattoo parlor, and several other places. We were welcoming people to the islands, but we weren’t even able to do normal every day things.
As of today, almost a year after the beginning of the Pandemic in Hawaii, we are still waiting on Tourism to be fully operational. While we have had many visitors, we are not at the numbers we have had in previous years. Today we are in Tier 3, in hopes of moving towards Tier 4 soon. *Fingers crossed*. Unfortunately, many businesses have been closed permanently (stores, restaurants, companies, including tour companies), looks like we will be able to travel between the islands without having to get a covid test (this had changed a few times, and at one point Kauai was stating everyone would have to quarantine), bars are still not open, many people are still waiting on Unemployment and waiting and trying to go back to work, and masks are still mandatory, but every day things are getting better. [Bars just opened last week, but mostly if they make a certain percentage on food orders, but are closing at midnight. I think we’re all still trying to figure out the details ] Except the traffic. That is getting back to normal (unfortunately). We may have a date for schools and colleges to go back to in-person learning–which means more adults will be able to go back to work.
Hawaii is still living in the Unknown. What this means is, we were and well, still are hurting. We are still unsure how we will overcome this. The layoffs have been tremendous. (The first month into the pandemic, the previous mayor had said tens of thousands in the travel industry on the Hawaiian Islands were laid off.)
And while we are anxiously awaiting your arrival! We know it may not be the right time for you. As someone who lives and breathes in tourism, we want you to experience Hawaii the way you’ve always dreamed of it! There’s nothing wrong with waiting until Hawaii gets officially back on it’s feet. But if you do decide to come, please pay attention to what is happening. Always remember, this place may be your vacation, but it is our home.
What is the pandemic like where you live?
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