Maui’s Struggling Tourism Industry Prepares For Return of Transpacific Travelers

October 11, 2020, 8:00 AM HST · Updated October 11, 9:37 AM
Cammy Clark · 142 Comments
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Empty baggage claim at Kahului Airport.

Kahului Airport’s empty baggage claim area on a Friday afternoon shows the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism in Maui. Photo Credit: Cammy Clark

Spencer Wright, the General Manager of Maui Lifted Jeep Rentals, is charging batteries and comprehensively cleaning and sanitizing its 15-vehicle fleet that has been mostly idle since March.

Maui Beachfront Rentals’ Michelle Zoodsma is having the 55 vacation condos she manages – and which have been shuttered for months – also comprehensively cleaned and sanitized. The preparation includes putting all the stored outdoor furniture back on the lanais.

And on Front Street in Old Lahaina, a place that has looked like a ghost town since the end of March, there are signs of life returning. Kimo’s Restaurant, a mainstay on the waterfront for 43 years, started serving Mai Tai’s and Hawaiian fish again on Thursday night.

All across Maui, hotels, vacation properties, car rental companies, restaurants, retail shops and other businesses that cater to the island’s 3 million or so annual travelers are preparing for the return of non-quarantining tourists, beginning Oct. 15.

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So what to expect? No one can say with any authority what numbers of visitors will travel to Maui through the end of the year. But most agree: The recovery is going to start out slowly.

“We see a lot of pent up demand, and people who want to come, but we’ve only got a few people coming at first,” Zoodsma said. “A lot of people are holding off to see how it goes and to make sure we are not shut down.”

Businesses have gone through this preparation before, only to have the date delayed. Originally, Aug. 1 was the launch date for the state’s pre-testing program for COVID-19, which allows transpacific travelers to skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine if they can provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of their last leg to Hawaii. The launch date was delayed until Sept. 1, then Oct. 1 and now Oct. 15.

But this time Gov. David Ige said in a news conference Wednesday that the state program is ready to launch Oct. 15. And while there has been concern among neighboring island mayors that second COVID-19 tests should be conducted once transpacific travelers have arrived, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said Wednesday that Maui will not opt-out of the state program – although he will continue to push for more steps to keep people safe.

It’s been a tough balancing act. Maui County’s efforts have kept the COVID-19 caseload relatively under control, with 397 cases and 12 deaths from the start of the pandemic. There are now only 20 active cases.

But it has come at a price, with the August unemployment rate for Maui County at 20.7 percent, among the highest in the nation. A year ago, it was 2.5 percent.

The main driver of that high unemployment rate is the loss of jobs in the lodging, hospitality, restaurant and other tourist-related industries. The Hawaii Tourism Authority numbers show the struggle: In August, total visitor days fell 96.8 percent from a year ago. There were 2,341 visitors on Maui in August versus 273,638 visitors a year ago. Year-to-date through August, arrivals to Maui decreased 70.9 percent to 611,743 visitors (most of whom we’re here in January, February and March).

No where is better to get the pulse of tourism than at Kahului Airport. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the airport served an average of 7,000 passengers per day. On a usual Friday afternoon, the place would be buzzing with excited travelers from all over the country and the world, eager to start their Maui adventures.

But on this Friday afternoon, Oct. 9, all five baggage claims were empty. Happy music played over the loudspeaker, but there were no happy people buying leis. There was only a security guard making rounds and a handful of people waiting to be picked up at the curb.

With the launch of the pre-testing program, the airport is expecting to get busier. Hawaiian Airlines, the No. 1 carrier for bringing tourists to Hawaii in 2019, is ramping up its operations and flights.

Currently, the pandemic reduced Hawaiian Airlines flights to an average of just 11 daily to Maui – and all from Honolulu. But the flight numbers will increase, beginning Nov. 18, with the addition of nonstop service between Maui and Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, San Jose and San Francisco, according to Tara Shimooka, Hawaiian Airlines Manager for External Communications.

“We’re encouraged by an increase in bookings for October and November, and we will be closely watching demand and gradually adjusting our capacity to provide our guests more flight availability as needed,” Shimooka said.

For October through December, Hawaiian Airline expects its neighbor island flight capacity will be about 55 percent lower than it was in 2019. Also, as part of the airline’s comprehensive safety protocols due to the Coronavirus, cabin capacity will be capped at 70 percent through Dec. 15 to allow for onboard distancing.

Nobody has a Crystal Ball that can predict how fast the tourism industry will recover because there simply remain too many unknowns about the pandemic. With the country experiencing outbreaks all over the mainland, will people fear getting on a plane? With all the unemployment and lost income, will people have the money for a Hawaiian vacation?

And a big concern among all on Maui. Will the state pre-testing program work, or will Maui suffer its own COVID-19 outbreak and shut down again?

“It’s hard for us to predict the pace at which demand will rebound, but we expect it to be a gradual and slow recovery, even with the ability for travelers who test negative to be exempted from the state of Hawai‘i quarantine upon arrival,” Shimooka said. “We have been encouraged by new bookings and anticipate the first week of the pre-travel testing program to be a bit busier due to pent up demand and as residents wait to return home until the exemption is in place.”

Trilogy Excursions, which operates two 54-foot sailboats, has been running only two modified tours, primarily for kamaʻāina, since July. The company is planning to resume a few of its normal tours in November and ramp up into the new year based on increased visitors.

“We’re playing it a little bit by ear and seeing what hotel occupancy rates are,” said Chris Rainone, a reservation agent for Trilogy Excursions. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed, but we’re still evaluating how we are going to modify our schedule.”

Trilogy Excursions has a certified passenger count of at least 74 for each sailboat, but to meet state-imposed restrictions and safety guidelines it has been limiting capacity to 30 people and will continue to do so.

In addition to new safety protocols, tourists coming to Maui now will find an island that is a little different from the one that was reveling in high gear in March, with the island coming off a record $5.12 billion in visitor spending in 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Some businesses that catered to tourists have closed for good, including Paia’s Rock & Brew that was part of the rock-themed restaurant chain co-founded by Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of KISS.

Other Maui tourist attractions will remain closed on the pre-testing program launch date of Oct. 15. They include the Old Lahaina Luau and the Maui Ocean Center, a place that drew nearly 445,000 visitors in 2019 to see its aquarium and turtle lagoon.

“We have not announced an official date for reopening, but we hope it will be in the very near future,” said Toni Rojas, Maui Ocean Center’s Director of Marketing.

Tourists need to return in numbers more than a trickle for it to be economically viable for some businesses to reopen, including the Maui Ocean Center.  But the hope is: “Reopen and the Tourists Will Come.”

“We like to support the travel industry as a whole,” Rojas said. “Like many other corporations and companies, we’re making an investment in the Maui economy by opening up in the near future. But we don’t expect it to be full capacity right away.”

Maui Ocean Center also will be operating differently for the safety of its employees and guests. To be able to maintain social distancing at the facility, capacity will be limited to less than 50 percent and reservations will be required for all ticket purchases. “No one will be able to just come up to the front gate and walk-in,” Rojas said.

Some businesses are waiting to make sure that the state’s pre-testing program does indeed launch before opening their doors.

Ashley Leal, General Manager of Fleetwood’s on Front Street, said the popular restaurant in Lahaina is preparing to reopen in early November: “We want to make sure everyone is coming.”

After being closed for seven months, reopening a restaurant takes a lot of preparation, including organization, cleaning, training staff and new signage due to the new safety protocols, Leal said. And, of course, ordering food.

“I think this time it is good news,” Leal said. “We all need to get back to work. It’s the first time we all have felt ready and we can do this and we can handle this. It’s time.”

Wright, of Maui Lifted Jeep Rentals, said so far there has not been a lot of reservations made for his jeeps: “But we’re excited. I think a lot of people are a bit doubtful whether the state of Hawaii will follow through. But when people see we are reopened, hopefully we will see an increase in activity.”

Zoodsma, of Maui Waterfront Rentals, said: “I am hoping 2021 goes through the roof. People will be fighting for missed trips. They might have gone to Europe, Australia or on a cruise. They may not be willing to do that, but they can come to Maui.”

For now, the future remains unknown. Many businesses are just happy to have open signs in their windows again.

“What a challenge these months have been,” said Kimo’s Facebook post on Thursday. “We’re not through it yet, but we are reopening tonight with so much gratitude and so much joy.”

Cammy Clark
Cammy Clark works for Maui Now as a news reporter. She received her print journalism degree from American University in Washington, D.C., and has previously worked for the Washington Post, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, UPI and the Orange County Register. Her stories have appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines. She also has contributed photographs and videos to various media outlets. She is married to a retired law enforcement officer turned boat captain and dive instructor. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring and enjoying all things Maui.

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