Sign Up for Our Monthly Hawaii Newsletter
As of Monday, the word from Hawaii Governor David Ige is that the state is working on a plan to modify its Safe Travels program to allow visitors who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 to move freely about the islands without a pretest or quarantine.
Ige wasn’t ready, however, to say when that vaccine passport program might be available.
“I think it’s premature to give any real specific dates on that right now,” Ige said at a April 5 press conference in Honolulu, during which he explained that the state has partnered with both Clear and CommonPass to develop a vaccine passport pilot program.
“Both of them have committed to incorporating vaccination data and status into their platforms when it becomes available,” Ige said. “We feel pretty good about where we are.”
Many Hawaii tourism stakeholders have been vocal in their support of expediting the modification of the Safe Travels program for vaccinated visitors. At the moment, every Safe Travels participant above the age of 4 must upload proof of a negative COVID-19 test — taken no more than 72 hours before the final leg of their journey — in order to bypass an otherwise mandatory 10-day quarantine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) pronouncement late last week that travel is now safe for those who’ve been vaccinated amplified pressure on Hawaii’s governor to alter how the destination welcomes inoculated visitors, and Hawaiian Airlines issued a statement Friday saying the carrier believes the tourism-dependent Aloha State is ready for change now.
“We are pleased to see today’s CDC determination that fully vaccinated people can safely travel domestically without testing or needing to quarantine,” Hawaiian Airlines said in a statement on April 2. “We are hopeful the state of Hawaii will update the Safe Travels program to align with these recommendations. … It’s time to restore freedom of travel to allow families and friends to reconnect and generate crucial economic activity.”
It’s time to restore freedom of travel to allow families and friends to reconnect and generate crucial economic activity.
Ige said on Monday that the major holdup is the lack of a comprehensive national database for individuals who have been vaccinated, which would allow state officials to confirm those who say they have been inoculated have really had their shots.
The Hawaii governor was joined at the recent press conference by Douglas Murdock, chief information officer for the state’s Office of Enterprise Technology Services, who was willing to shed some light regarding when the state’s vaccine passport program might be ready.
“We’re just not sure how fast a vaccination database will go up nationwide,” Murdock said. “They might have parts of the country first and then add more as they go. So, it’s hard to peg a date, but it wouldn’t surprise me if by summer we could have this going, and have that as an availability for all of the people who want to come to Hawaii.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if by summer we could have this going, and have that as an availability for all of the people who want to come to Hawaii.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said on Tuesday that a vaccine passport program in Hawaii would have a meaningful impact on the wholesaler’s business to the state.
“That would be a very positive development for Hawaii, and it would make travel much easier and faster,” he said. “If I can show my CDC vaccination card and get into Hawaii and freely travel around Hawaii, you’re going to see a fairly significant increase in travel to the Islands.”
If I can show my CDC vaccination card and get into Hawaii and freely travel around Hawaii, you’re going to see a fairly significant increase in travel to the Islands.
Kathy Takushi, owner of Captivating Journeys on Maui, said a number of people have reached out to her about Hawaii trips since the CDC’s Friday announcement, believing they can now visit the state without a pretest. Clarifying why that’s not true has been time consuming, Takushi said, and dampened interested for some of those prospective Hawaii visitors.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Takushi also said a vaccine passport program would reduce her overall workload for many of the vacations she’s now booking to Hawaii.
“People get so overwhelmed with where to test and with the 72-hour requirement,” Takushi said. “I’m helping them find the testing place — not just booking their package. I’m really helping to walk them through the entire test and Safe Travels process.”
Pleasant Holidays’ Richards said the wholesaler has seen a dramatic jump in sales to Hawaii in recent weeks, and tourism business there is already recovering far faster than he expected.
“We had forecasted it to be kind of a U-shaped recovery, and it’s turned into a V-shaped recovery,” he said. “It’s been 12 long months, but I’m glad to say Hawaii is finally back.”
Looking to offer some evidence of the Aloha State’s resurgence, Richards pointed to Pleasant Holiday’s weekly sales ending April 4.
“If you compare them to the same week in 2019, our Hawaii sales were up 3% over 2019,” Richards said. “And 2019 was a record year.”
Kari Mollan, an advisor with Stellar Travel in Bellevue, Wash., said she has also seen a substantial surge in inquiries and bookings to Hawaii, but she noted that selling vacations to the destination this summer has at times required a different approach.
In previous years, offering clients a Hawaii quote and allowing them a couple of weeks to consider was the norm, but that approach has led to later scrambling on a number of occasions this spring, according to Mollan, who said multi-family accommodations are already difficult to come by in the Islands, and some hotel room rates are increasing from one week to the next.
I think if you have your heart set on anything, book it all at the same time to avoid disappointment.
“I think people are conditioned to think, ‘I did my airfare, now I’m going to sit on my hotel or my car [rental],’ or ‘I’ll book the activities a week before I go,’” Mollan said. “I don’t think you can do that right now. I think if you have your heart set on anything, book it all at the same time to avoid disappointment.”
Another current challenge in Hawaii is the skyrocketing cost of rental cars around the state. A Wednesday search at several OTAs for an economy car rental on Maui for later this month produced an average price of about $460 per day, including taxes and fees.
“Car rentals have been sky-high,” Takushi said, noting that hundreds of Maui’s rental cars sat idly for months in airport parking lots last year before many were later shipped to the U.S. mainland. “I think the car rental companies just weren’t ready for the influx of travelers we’ve had all of a sudden. They might have kept them here if they knew it was going to get so busy.”
Richards noted that car rental constraint isn’t just a problem for the Aloha State.
“Rental cars in general throughout the U.S. are severely limited in the primary leisure markets, and that includes Hawaii,” he said. “Some of the rental car companies reduced their fleets during the pandemic and now can’t get new cars because of the semi-conductor chip shortage. U.S. manufacturers can’t make them fast enough.”
Both Takushi and Mollan said they have been able to book cars for Hawaii clients at more reasonable rates through vacation packages offered by wholesaler partners, but even those car prices are substantially higher now than usual.
“At first, when I was pricing it with the package companies, I thought, ‘Wow, these are high,’” Takushi said. “But then when you look in the GDS, it’s really not a bad price when you compare.”
Takushi offered an example of just how desperate some Maui visitors have been for affordable transportation during recent vacations.
“At some of the hotels on the west side, people have been renting U-Hauls,” she said.
The DetailsHawaii Safe Travels Program www.hawaiicovid19.com