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A Summer in Wakīkī With No Japanese Tourists

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The pandemic has slowed the flow of Japanese travelers to Hawaiʻi to a trickle. That’s hit the hospitality industry around the state, but one of the areas seeing the most changes is Waikīkī.

The number of Japanese visitors decreased by nearly 80% last year compared to 2019, according to the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority.

They have not returned during the recent spring and summer months where the state saw a bigger number of domestic tourists than pre-pandemic times.

Several barriers make it difficult for Japanese citizens to travel out of the country:

  • Three PCR tests are required when traveling internationally — before traveling to the designated location, before returning, and one more after returning to Japan.
  • A two-week quarantine is required after traveling internationally.
  • There is no vaccine passport system in Japan yet.

According to the latest figures from the government, less than a third of the entire Japanese population is fully vaccinated.

Mitsue Varley is the Country Director at Hawaiʻi Tourism Japan. HTJ had to switch its main focus from marketing to providing information on COVID-19.

We first focused on assembling facts about the pandemic and sending that information out in Japanese. After we did that, we focused on digital marketing," Varley said. "We held virtual tours and made a website called 'All Hawaiʻi' so people in Japan could feel like they’re traveling from their homes.”

Many local businesses are dependent on the foot traffic of Japanese tourists.

Yukiko Hata is the owner of a boutique in Waikīkī called Lauleʻa. Hata says that 95% of her customers before the pandemic were from Japan. The shop used to specialize in Hawaiian jewelry that was popular with Japanese tourists, but they had to redirect their stock to accommodate more American tastes.

“We’ve expanded our inventory for various knick-knacks such as stuffed animals and stationary," Hata said. "I also let my two Chihuahuas roam around the store because American visitors love dogs and come into the store to see them. As a result, I started selling dog leashes and clothes.”

The new marketing increased Lauleʻa's sales, but sales are only half of its pre-pandemic numbers.

For the Japanese visitor numbers to increase, more vaccinations will be needed — which could lead to modifications in Japanese travel laws.

Zoe Dym was a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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