The state of Hawaii has expanded its trusted traveler program to include passengers arriving from Japan, but major obstacles remain for prospective Japanese visitors.
The sound of jet engines at a Hawaii airport would not normally be cause for celebration; runways across the state logged more than 1 million flights in 2019.
However, All Nippon Airways Flight 186 was noteworthy. The Boeing 787 brought 64 passengers from Haneda International Airport in Tokyo to Honolulu, marking the first Japanese passenger flight to arrive in Hawaii since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown international travel.
Those 65 passengers were the first international travelers to enter the islands under the state government’s expanded Safe Travels Hawaii program, which allows passengers who test negative for COVID-19 before flying to bypass the state’s otherwise mandatory 14-day quarantine.
The program first launched in October, but only covered individuals arriving from the Mainland U.S. The state of Hawaii and the government of Japan negotiated an agreement that now allows travelers from Japan to participate.
Masa Taka, a 20-something Tokyo-resident who works in the airline industry, arrived on ANA 186 and was one of the first to take advantage of the new travel rules.
“This is the first time [for me] to come here, actually, so I want to see the beach first and then eat some Hawaiian food,” he told HPR on the curb outside Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
The flight was a welcome development for Hawaii’s battered visitor industry, which along with the food service sector has absorbed most of the state’s job losses. At 15%, Hawaii’s unemployment rate leads the nation.
Before the pandemic, Japanese visitors were a major economic force in the state. About 1.5 million travelers from Japan came to Hawaii in 2019. Until 2019, they also spent more per capita than any other demographic group.
As recently arrived passengers from ANA 186 shuffled from baggage claim to the pickup curb, Hawaii’s Lt. Gov. Josh Green put the visitors' financial impact on the state into perspective.
“One Airbus at 85% capacity means $105 million that comes into the state of Hawaii, $12 million in taxes, and 1,100 jobs,” Green noted.
Green, who at times has had a strained relationship with Gov. David Ige, praised Hawaii’s chief executive for launching the Safe Travels program.
However, the initial flights from Japan were well below 85 percent full and are likely to remain that way for some time.
John DeFreitas with Honolulu-based Panda Travel told HPR that no one is expecting a boom from Japan anytime soon because travelers who return to Japan are still required to undergo a two-week quarantine.
“Now they’re allowing individuals to come back in, but they’re still stuck when they return that they have a 14-day quarantine in Japan,” DeFreitas noted.
Results from the first week of flights indicate most Japanese travelers are not rushing to jump on a plane to Hawaii. Economist Carl Bonham, who directs the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, recently told state lawmakers that the return quarantine was likely a major factor.
“It doesn’t look to me like we saw a surge like we did from the U.S., not anywhere close,” Bonham explained. “That very well may be related to that 14-day return quarantine.”
Some 8,000 domestic travelers from the United States arrived in Hawaii on the first day of the Safe Travels program. While the trendline is increasing, arrival numbers are still only 30% of the same time last year.
While all businesses that cater to visitors have been pummeled by the near-complete halt of global travel, operators who cater to the Japanese market have not even been able to benefit from that modest recovery in U.S. visitors.
Alan Kinuhata owns Events, Services, and Productions Hawaii, which helps run major events like the Honolulu Festival and the Pan-Pacific Festival. He told HPR that ESP Hawaii is entirely oriented toward the Japanese market and that business has effectively been at zero since April.
“It’s been a rough year,” Kinuhata said in a phone interview. “I’ve not seen any light at the end of the tunnel.”
He added that he is grateful to state officials for working toward resuming more regular travel from Japan, but has modest expectations while Japan’s return quarantine remains in place.
With the prolonged revenue deficit likely to persist even longer, Kinuhata has begun exploring options for generating non-travel business.
He has been leveraging ESP Hawaii’s language skills and connections in Japan. The company is now in the process of developing an agreement to import Japanese-made products like disinfectant for sale in the U.S.
Economists and government officials agree that there will be no sustained economic recovery in Hawaii until visitors feel safe traveling and return to Hawaii in greater numbers. More than 10 million came in 2019.
While the practical consideration of a two-week quarantine may be a major factor in the desire of Japanese citizens to travel, health concerns are likely significant as well.
Outside Honolulu’s airport, Masa Taka told HPR that as an airline crewmember, he was comfortable flying, but thinks that fear of contracting the virus is keeping many of his fellow citizens at home.
“Not traveling too much, they [are] afraid of the COVID-19,” he explained.
State authorities like the governor say the trusted traveler program is safe and does not pose a risk to public health.
In the first 3 weeks, more than 150,000 people entered Hawaii after testing negative for COVID-19, about two-thirds of them visitors according to statistics presented by Lieutenant Governor Josh Green.
A post-arrival testing program found that less than 1 in 1,000 arriving individuals was positive for the virus.
Local health experts continue urging residents to wear masks and avoid public gatherings, saying those are the most important protections against the spread of COVID-19.
Correction: This story originally stated incorreclty that Colombia leads the world in total COVID-19 cases. Colombia leads the world in total recovered cases of COVID-19, according to Yale University.