Hawaii – an air travel testing opportunity for vaccination passports?

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The Island of Hawaii is one of the most iconic holiday destinations in the United States, potentially in the whole world. The islands, visited by over 10 million tourists in 2019, have seen a very steep drop off in visitors throughout the pandemic. In fact, the state had very stringent arrival procedures, as local governors aimed at limiting the spread of the virus on the island.

And they were successful, as cases peaked at 250 on a seven-day average in August 2020, while at its peak, infection rates in Florida, for example, peaked at a 17,568 seven-day average in January 2021 per US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Between May and June 2020, the seven-day rolling average fluctuated between zero and two cases, before picking up again in mid-June 2020.

Trailing economy

However, the island, whose economy heavily relies on the influx of tourism, saw its General Domestic Product (GDP) growth drop by as much as 13.9% in Q2 2020. Comparatively speaking, Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development, & Tourism (DBEDT) highlighted that the island state’s previous worst quarter was in Q2 2009 when the Global Financial Crisis resulted in the Aloha State losing 4.9% of its GDP in a single quarter.

“As the pandemic took hold, tourism-related industries were hit the hardest in the second quarter with real GDP declines in Arts, Entertainment and Recreation (-61.8%), Accommodation and Food Service (-61.1%), Transportation and Warehouse (-30.6%),” read the full-year report for 2020 by the DBEDT. The report also showcased that while the GDP growth within the mainland US began to recover by Q3 2020, Hawaii’s story was still waiting for the cut-off point where the happy ending would begin.

“The tourism sector was by far the area most impacted by the pandemic; Hawaii’s visitor numbers were a mere 2.4 percent of the previous year’s level in the third quarter. However, tourism gained some traction as the state’s pre-travel testing program began October 15 and Japanese tourists were included from November 6,” concluded the DBEDT report.

Most importantly, the pre-travel testing program showcased that the pandemic and travel can somewhat co-exist. Testing passengers prior to departure, despite the fact that various studies have warned it could provide false-positive results, has seemingly allowed Hawaii to slowly open up the islands to tourists and control the pandemic. Since the peak in August 2020, the state saw its second peak in mid-January 2021, with a seven-day rolling average of 189 cases, steadily dropping off.

In terms of visitors, the of travelers coming into the Aloha State by air has varied. From 4,546 visitors by air in April 2020, according to DBEDT data, to 235,793 in December 2020, fluctuating in between. As the latest numbers presented by the governmental agency showcased, 235,283 passengers flew to Hawaii in February 2021. While that is nowhere near the number of travelers compared to the corresponding period a year prior, it showcased that opening travel under some circumstances is a possibility.

Increase in bookings

While the world is still battling the pandemic, the tide has slowly begun to turn, especially in countries like the US. The vaccination program in the States is one of the highest, as almost 30% of the population within the US have had at least one shot against the pandemic, while almost 17% have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, per the CDC.

As a result, airlines have indicated that bookings are surging, especially on domestic travel destinations, which Hawaii is a part of. American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) indicated that as of late March 2021, bookings for the next seven days had reached 90% of levels seen prior to the pandemic, with a domestic load factor of 80%. The airline would “continue to adjust its fleet and capacity plans based on anticipated levels of demand and presently expects to reactivate most of its aircraft in the second quarter to meet anticipated levels of demand,” read the company’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing on March 29, 2021. Meanwhile, United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby, while speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit on March 31, 2021, indicated that domestic travel, particularly leisure demand, has “almost entirely recovered.” The airline, in an internal memo to employees, said that it would once again begin hiring pilots, starting with “approximately 300 pilots who either had a new hire class date that was canceled, or who had a 2020 conditional job offer,” United Airlines Senior Vice President of Flight Operations Bryan Quigly was quoted as saying in the internal memo, per CNBC.

As Kirby rightfully pointed out, leisure travel will recover first, as businesses are still trying to keep second-priority costs, like corporate travel, down. This could play into the hands of Hawaii, as 84.7% of travelers to the island were leisure travelers. An additional 8.2% were visiting friends/relatives, while only 4.5% were visiting the Islands for business purposes. This could perfectly play into Hawaii’s hands, as 68.2% of visitors in 2019 were returning visitors – in 2020, throughout major travel disruption, the number climbed to 72%.

Still, the local government has not issued a waiver that vaccinated travelers would be able to skip the mandatory 10-day quarantine upon arrival. The only option available to avoid it is providing a negative test answer, which was taken within 72 hours prior to arriving in Hawaii. Nevertheless, the Hawaii government officials are looking for a vaccine passport application, as Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green told KHON-TV that he “would love to pilot it in mid-April with the cards at least for inter-island travel.” Expanding the passport to mainland visitors or to tourists from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, particularly such markets as Japan and South Korea, could help Hawaii in its recovery in the near term. It could also be a good test to showcase how the island, which is one of the most premier leisure destinations, will handle the combination of the pandemic, vaccines, and tourism with a travel pass – possibly providing an example for others to follow.


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