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The Conversation

Tourism Industry Representative Says Governor Sending Wrong Message to Visitors

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Gov. David Ige is asking visitors and residents to reduce travel to Hawaiʻi while hospitals struggle with the surge of COVID-19 cases, but one local tourism representative says he wishes the message had been targeted at unvaccinated travelers.

"We are going to be requesting all of our travel partners to communicate the fact that it’s not a good time to be traveling to the islands," Ige said at the press conference. "It is a risky time to be traveling right now."

Ige stopped short of formalizing his request in the form of an executive order, meaning there is no legal obligation to follow his instructions.

The governor said it’s a different situation now, with multiple COVID-19 vaccinations available, compared to last year when strict quarantine rules essentially shut down Hawaiʻi’s tourism industry.

Mufi Hannemann, CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said he understands Ige and the mayors are in a difficult position, but he says the problem is among the local unvaccinated population.

Hannemann proposed making the message to visitors more specific: "If you are unvaccinated, you are not welcome in Hawaiʻi."

"They say that 90% of the people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. There's very few tourists in that mix," he said. "That's why we are having a hard time trying to digest all of it because we really have tried our best to comply with everything the state has asked us."

He said he also thinks there should be more rigorous vaccination policies from the state, especially since the Pfizer vaccine has now received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

"So there's a lot of complications that arose out of that statement, albeit, it was just a statement. But nonetheless, you've got the state's marketing agencies all now saying they're going to convey that message out there," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "The response that we have gotten so far from those who help us with businesses — bring business travel here, or tourists in general here — is not very positive. They're anticipating more cancellations, people thinking of going elsewhere."

The state reported 565 new cases Tuesday and one new COVID-related death.

An emergency room physician recently told Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth that the state's health care system would not be able to handle a major crisis occurring at this point in the pandemic.

Roth said the doctor told him, "If a hurricane was to injure a bunch of people or if you had a massive crash on the freeway in Honolulu or something where there's a lot of cars and injuries, not just the Hilo and Kona and Waimea hospitals — it would take down the entire system."

Judy Donovan, a spokesperson at Kona Community Hospital, connected an increase in non-COVID patients to tourism earlier this month.

"We did see when tourism checked back in maybe four weeks ago, our numbers started going up right away from motor vehicle accidents, moped accidents, falls. So we had an increase of tourists and also it seems like people, in general, were getting back out because they've been inside for a year and a half," she told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Mufi Hanneman's interview aired on The Conversation on Aug. 24, 2021.

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