Ready or not, here they come.
Hawaii is expected to get a flood of visitors when it drops the pre-travel testing requirement for fully vaccinated domestic travelers July 8.
In many ways, businesses that cater to tourists will not be ready.
Many are still chafing under COVID-19 restrictions and a pandemic-related loss of workforce, and as a result are having difficulties scaling up.
That means tourists might find it hard to get the service they are accustomed to. From Hawaii’s rental car shortages to the difficulty in trying to get a restaurant reservation to the lines out the door at places where there are social distancing requirements, its just not as easy for visitors as it used to be.
What’s more, friendliness isn’t always present from the stressed hospitality workers, which is a real concern for Hawaii. Aloha has always been a key part of the visitor brand — a guarantee to visitors that they are welcome here.
Adding to the friction points, is the fact that Hawaii is one of the few states that still require people to wear masks indoors.
Even when domestic travelers qualify for a vaccination exemption, they still have to plug all of their information into the bureaucratic Safe Travels website, which the state doesn’t plan to drop until 70% of Hawaii residents are vaccinated.
Until then unvaccinated travelers and kids under 12, who cannot get vaccinated, will have to follow the Safe Travels requirements for COVID testing to bypass the state’s travel quarantine.
Overall visitor satisfaction during the pandemic is trending downward as more arrive in the islands, according to the Visitor COVID-19 study, an online survey conducted in June for the Hawaii Tourism Authority by Anthology Group. Responses came from visitors who traveled to Hawaii from May 15 to 24.
Visitor satisfaction dropped from 85% who would rate their Hawaii visit as excellent in the December 2020/January 2021 survey to 76% in the June 2021 survey.
Limited capacity and availability at restaurants and attractions was the biggest concern for visitors, with 30% of survey respondents indicating it was an issue. Another 17% said Hawaii’s COVID-19 mandates and rules were confusing and that Hawaii was too crowded. Some 15% wanted fewer COVID restrictions. The lack of rental cars and transportation alternatives was a problem for 11%.
The percentage of travelers who are “very likely” to recommend Hawaii to a friend or family member as a place to visit in the next six months also dropped, from 86% in the December 2020/January 2021 survey to 64% in the June study.
Todd Murray, a visitor who came in Sunday on Southwest’s inaugural flight from Phoenix with wife Anna, said the couple were on their third visit to Oahu but weren’t sure whether they would come back.
Murray said he managed to get a rental car with his travel points but that the cost was so terrible that he might return it early.
Then there were lines, everywhere, even at the shave ice and ice cream shops.
“They don’t seem to be able to accommodate us,” Murray said as he and Anna waited to get into Duke’s Waikiki in a line that was so long it could have been mistaken for one to an amusement park ride.
Anna Murray said she began trying to get a reservation at Duke’s Waikiki three weeks ago after encountering similar difficulties during a trip to Seattle.
“We nearly starved to death there,” she said. “It was Memorial Day weekend, so we ended up eating mostly fast food.”
Todd Murray said he also experienced issues during a recent trip to San Diego but that the problems were even worse in Hawaii.
Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, said challenges have emerged as Hawaii’s businesses struggle to keep up with COVID-19 rule changes while dealing with worker shortages.
She said businesses are encountering difficulties bringing back workers for a myriad of reason ranging from having to compete with enhanced unemployment benefits to workers’ concerns about health and finding child care. Menor- McNamara said some workers also left Hawaii during the pandemic or changed professions.
“Without a solid reopening date, it’s been challenging for business to prepare,” she said. “We don’t know when we will reach 70% vaccinated.”
Businesses were given about two weeks to prepare for the next travel and gathering changes. But Menor- McNamara said the latest updates do not go far enough for all businesses to reopen with ease.
Starting July 8, social gatherings will expand to 25 people indoors and 75 people outdoors. At the same time, restaurants may increase capacity to 75% — with maximum group sizes of 25 indoors and 75 outdoors.
Dante Kea, Duke’s Waikiki manager, said the changes were welcome news for bars and events, but not so much for restaurants unless the state also drops the 6-foot social distancing requirement.
“We can’t grow capacity to 75% unless the distance requirement between tables drops to 3 feet per table,” Kea said.
Kea said Duke’s Waikiki and other TS Restaurants have worked to adapt. In December they added an outdoor takeout window called The Puka, which made it easier to service carryout customers, and provided a place for patrons in the wait-list lines to get drinks. Hula Grill Waikiki, another in the TS Restaurants family, also struck a deal to expand at times into the Outrigger Waikiki Beach’s Voyager 47 Club Lounge.
Even so, Kea said the restaurant cannot keep up with the demand in Waikiki, where most restaurants and attractions are full because visitors are spending more time in the tourist district due to the rental car shortages.
Dylan Ching, vice president of operations for TS Restaurants Oahu and Kauai regions, said reservations are not available at Duke’s Waikiki until August. Walk-ins start lining up at 3:30 p.m. daily to get a spot, sometimes waiting up to 2-1/2 hours, and many are not eating anywhere close to their desired times.
Ching said the job environment is tough for workers, who are increasingly coping with “hangry” visitors, those who are angry because they are hungry.
“We don’t blame the visitor. It is frustrating across the board,” he said.
Ching said Duke’s Waikiki has always been a busy place, and the company has always provided deescalation training, which is getting put to use more frequently than before.
“Our team is as good as any, but there’s only so much you can handle. It’s a tidal wave coming every day.”
Tina Yamaki, Retail Merchants of Hawaii president, said retailers also are feeling the strain, especially since many are still short-staffed from the pandemic, and grappling with supply constraints.
“We’ll order like 100 items and only get 30,” Yamaki said.
She said customers get frustrated when they can’t find what they want, and some don’t like to wear masks, especially if they are fully vaccinated or come from places without restrictions. And, no one likes standing in long lines waiting for service because retailers do not have enough staff.
“They’ve been hiring teenagers for the summer. Some are them are so overwhelmed that they are going to lunch and not coming back,” Yamaki said.