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Head of Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority talks visitor arrival forecasts, cruise ships and more

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Among the many developments in Hawaiʻi's tourism industry, the first cruise ship is set to pull into Honolulu Harbor this weekend. The state also tweaked its Safe Travels program, and there are forecasts for the islands to see not 10 but 12 million visitors a year. How do we deal with that?

The Conversation spoke to John De Fries, head of the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, about all things tourism and more.


On the tourism forecast for the upcoming year

JOHN DE FRIES: Forecasts, frankly, are all subject to how we manage the Omicron variant. And you're beginning to see the effects it's having on the airlines being able to properly staff their aircraft, and that led during the holiday season to a number of cancellations. And so we actually live by the airline seat capacity. When that is impacted, that backs everything. The holidays pretty much went as expected. We're experiencing right now a slight decrease, which is really seasonal in the first couple of weeks of January. But all indications are the first quarter will be busy. Typically, it is the busiest quarter in the year. We anticipate the same, but again, so much of it depends on what happens with this COVID variant. The primary market, going back into early summer has been the U.S. market. A number of the foreign countries have national policies that require returning visitors from the U.S. to either isolate or quarantine themselves. And that has and remains a major deterrent. The idea of making a trip for one week or 10 days and having to return and isolate yourself, anywhere from a week to two weeks would be a deterrent for anyone — and so our major market is the United States. But we also have a careful eye on what's happening within each of the regions of the U.S. because as their COVID numbers begin to surge, we're going to see fewer travelers from that part of the country than we would have ordinarily.

Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority

On Hawaiʻi tourism amid the surge in cases

The cardinal rule from the very beginning of this variant was tourism would recover. Hawaiʻi's economy would be on a trajectory to recover wholly based on our ability to keep the COVID curve flattened, and now that we're experiencing our own surge, that will again have an impact and influence over the numbers that we originally anticipated. So the answer to your question is that all of it is incumbent on our ability to take care of the health of our own community. And as long as we are experiencing these kinds of increases, it's going to affect anything that we are forecasted to date. They are very few secrets in the industry. And so it's pretty well known what Hawaiʻi is experiencing. And so our immediate concern is really the safety of our own community.

On cruise ships returning to Hawaiʻi

The cruise ships that come to Hawaiʻi are required to achieve a memorandum of understanding and ultimately a memorandum of agreement with the State of Hawaiʻi. And I've been impressed with the way the Department of Transportation, Harbors Division, Department of Health have all engaged — and so until further notice, every ship needs to arrive in Honolulu first. I just got word that the interisland cruise is delaying its start-up until the month of March, which is roughly a 50 to 60-day delay. On a larger scale, cruise ships internationally have been experiencing COVID cases that are concerning, but I believe that the state has done an incredible job in creating an environment that, again, places emphasis on keeping the community safe — and also holding the cruise ship industry to a very high level, and high set of standards in terms of COVID protocols. So this one ship coming through, I believe it's on its way around the world and will be stopping, but because of the COVID surges, I was also, you know, I commend Norwegian Cruise Line for taking the step to delay the restart of their industry in Hawaiʻi. But one thing I would like to say as well is that, to their credit, they're self-imposing a capacity limitation, again, driven by the demand that they feel is there — and starting at a 60% capacity, and then taking a very measured kind of approach to it. So I think the industry as a whole has done an excellent job having to deal with the variables presented and the challenges presented by this Omicron variant.

On the projection that Hawaiʻi will go back up to 10 million visitors a year

Those forecasts, I take to heart, but I also know that they're subject to a whole number of variables. Our work right now is focused on several fronts, including our own destination management action plans, but effort right now is going into trying to understand the kind of digital and technological infrastructure we need to manage that kind of increased volume. And so, at the moment, I'm not focused on those numbers as much as I am trying to understand how we improve the real-time flow of information that will allow residents and visitors to make better choices about where they're congregating at any given time — and right now, it concerns me that we don't have that infrastructure in place to deal with that kind of increase projections that were delivered to the legislature yesterday.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 5, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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