Aloha State

How the Pandemic Shook Hawaiian Tourism

Seattle's favorite tropical destination struggles with lawbreaking tourists and overrun hiking trails. Will Covid lead to a long-needed reckoning for Hawaiian visitors?

By Malia Alexander March 25, 2022

Waikiki was like a ghost town in the middle of 2020. Instead of sunburned bodies sardined on the Hawaiian beach or the high-pitched squeals from tourists as their feet touched the warm ocean, there was just the sound of the wind and waves crashing on the shore.

For Starr Kalahiki, Native Hawaiian jazz singer and activist, those early quarantine days fostered healing—for both the land and the locals. “The response was immediate. The land was so, so happy,” she says from her blue-walled bedroom in Moanalua, about 10 miles northwest of Honolulu's famous beach. “In Waikiki, you could smell the lipoa, you could smell the seaweed. You didn’t smell suntan lotion.”

Two hundred miles away, on Hawai’i Island, photographer Kapulei Flores felt the same: “It was so nice to be able to go to the beach and not have to worry about if it’s gonna be crowded. Just being able to freely walk around your own community, your own ‘āina, was the best part.”

But for others, the change felt apocalyptic. Airports had no traffic; neither did the freeways. Streets weren’t flooded with people, hotels and restaurants were desolate. With tourism as the state’s biggest industry, Covid threw Hawai’i for a loop—and the islands already struggle with the effects of visitors.

A 1973 Seattle Daily Times article proclaimed the 50th state an ideal travel spot for Washingtonians: “Hawai’i is a destination that has just about everything for the vacationer, from the high-rise finery of bustling Waikiki to the quiet scenery of the neighborhood islands.”

In 2019, Hawai’i had a record year, bringing in 10.4 million tourists from around the globe—two million of those from Washington. Pre-pandemic, 170,000, on average, left Sea-Tac Airport for the islands every month. But when Covid hit, Hawai'i governor David Ige proclaimed a 14-day quarantine for all incoming travelers. The slightest violation of his restrictions would be met with a pricey fine or up to a year in prison.

For those first 10 months of 2020, total visitor arrivals in Hawai’i dropped 75 percent, from 30,000 to less than 1,000 per day. Travel from Washington to the islands declined only 35 percent to about 730,000 for the entirety of the year.

Though the pause in travel kept Hawai’i as one of the lowest Covid-infected states in the U.S., its unemployment skyrocketed, going from two percent to 20: “We went from the lowest unemployment to the highest in the whole United States in one month,” says Jerry Agrusa, travel industry management professor at the University of Hawai’i.

Then quarantine exceptions expanded, allowing visitors to bypass it with a negative test. The pre-travel testing program led to the highest number of visitors since before Covid in just the first month, and nearly half of those travelers flew out of Sea-Tac.

By the time 2021 came around, talk of a “hot-vaxxed summer” lingered in the air. Although Seattle logged record-breaking temperatures in June, nothing stopped Washingtonians from trading Golden Gardens for the North Shore.

Yet visitors cheated isolation requirements, ignored mask mandates, and even falsified vaccination cards—one forger was arrested with a fake card that read “Maderna” instead of Moderna. As delta spiked, the state saw some of the highest case numbers they’d seen all pandemic and Ige pleaded, “Now is not a good time to travel to Hawai’i.”

The return of tourists to Waikiki in the spring of 2021 wasn't welcome by all.

Covid cases and hospitalizations can be tallied and the number of tourists that entered each island can be counted, but it’s harder to determine a diminishing land. “How do you quantify ‘āina that is eroding because there’s too many hikers?” says O’ahu singer Pōmaika’i Keawe. At Diamond Head State Park near Honolulu, a park coordinator counted more than 500 people on the trail one day last summer, despite Hawai’i’s social distancing measures.

In 2020, Hawai’i Tourism Authority tried to remedy the tourist problem, announcing a six-year plan that consists of reservation requirements for state parks, conservation fees, and even educational videos that spread cultural and environmental awareness. The plan hopes to change the stigma surrounding tourism and challenge visitors, giving them a more authentic experience. Agrusa thinks the real problem is there are just too many tourists.

Tourism has never been a black-and-white issue for Hawai’i. For many, the hospitality industry is their main source of income and is the main driving force for the state economy. But its effects are complicated. “Everyone equates Hawai’i with tourism,” says Agrusa, “but our real problem is housing.”

It started with short-term vacation rentals. During the 1980s, O’ahu was littered with STRs. Visitors intruded residential neighborhoods and by 1989, the island made them illegal. But in 2019, there were still an estimated 33,118 STRs statewide, and they contributed to the shortage of affordable full-time rental homes.

Some renters in Hawai’i spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Home value and property taxes continue to rise, pricing out many local residents who already struggle to stay in their homes. Still, out-of-state investors continue to buy up houses, condos, and apartments, especially in Waikiki. “We’re being uprooted for corporate foreign entities and companies who do not care about the land or the people or the effects,” says photographer Kapulei Flores. 

Struggles over land are nothing new in Hawai’i, nor are how they intersect with its tourism. Mauna Kea, the globe’s largest mountain, is a premier site for astronomical observatories—and a popular visitor attraction. It is home to more telescopes than any other peak. When plans for another observatory were announced, Native Hawaiians protested the additional intrusion on a sacred space. Kia’i mauna, mountain protectors, have been protesting the installation since 2014. “We are doing our best to preserve what we can so you can continue to come back,” says Keawe. “But you’re not going to have the same Hawai’i to come back to if you’re not helping us care for this place, and learn who we are, and why these places are important to us.”

In late 2021, locals in the state’s biggest city were dealt another blow. As tourists worried about restaurants being open for indoor dining, 93,000 people couldn’t even drink their own water—it was laced with petroleum from the nearby Navy fuel farm on O’ahu. This isn’t the first occurrence either. Since its creation in the 1940s, the well has leaked 180,000 gallons of gasoline into Hawai’i’s drinking water.

As mask mandates fell across the country, Hawai’i has remained the sole holdout with a statewide rule ending March 25. Two years into the pandemic, singer and activist Starr Kalahiki still has hope for a change in how outsiders affect life in Hawai’i; she imagines a world for both outsiders and Natives.

“What I wish is that it would be understood how sacred this place is and that it would be honored as such,” Kalahiki says, crying. “I don’t blame the world for not knowing how Hawai’i should be seen. I want to share the beauty of this place with the world, but in a safe way.”

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