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Visitor officials looking at ‘resort bubbles’

Industry official says it’s the ‘best Plan B’

A couple walks across a deserted Kaanapali Resort beach in April. Visitor industry officials are mulling the creation of “resort bubbles” that will keep trans-Pacific visitors to specific areas they cannot leave. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The visitor industry on Maui is looking at creating “resort bubbles” or “geo-fencing” with visitor arrivals down 99 percent in June and the Sept. 1 lifting of the quarantine requirement for trans-Pacific travelers looking dimmer as new COVID-19 cases statewide hit triple digits daily.

“This is kind of the best Plan B that we have,” said Rod Antone, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association on Monday. “I think this is a good option. There are some kinks to work out,” including enforcement and maintaining safety of hotel workers.

Geo-fencing will keep trans-Pacific travelers at resorts in a bubble they cannot leave. Mauians will be able to continue enjoying the reduced traffic and fewer people on beaches and at other popular areas because visitors will be forced to stay in their hotel or resort area and beaches while keeping them away from Haleakala and the Kamaole beaches, Antone said.

The tourist bubble would give the state some time to work on a reopening plan while getting a lot of people back to work at the resorts, Antone said. Many of the 49 members of the association are “gun-shy” about the possible Sept. 1 plan to allow trans-Pacific flyers to bypass the two-week quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test.

Gov. David Ige originally announced Aug. 1 as the start date but pushed the date back to Sept. 1 following hefty increases in new cases in Hawaii’s major tourism markets on the Mainland and in the islands, mainly on Oahu. Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino last week expressed his skepticism about the Sept. 1 date.

Antone said there were good reasons for pushing the date back but some hotels had made expenditures that could not be recovered based on the Aug. 1 date. A resort needs to order food and other items ahead of the opening; workers return before opening for preparations and COVID-19 training.

“If there could be some reassurances from the state that it’s happening for sure September, or no if not we are going to move it to October or mid-October, that’s what people would like,” he said.

Even when resorts do reopen, officials only are expecting 20 percent occupancy, Antone said. There are questions about whether people want to travel amid COVID-19 or whether they have the money to spend that are working against travel to Hawaii, but Antone also pointed out that many travelers are barred from going to many destinations, including Canada and the Caribbean, which could work in the state’s favor.

From the resorts’ perspective, reopening will not bring them into the black but will reduce losses, Antone said. Hotels, which have been shuttered since late March, still are losing money being closed. There are a few workers, such as human resources, security and maintenance staff who have to stay on. Some utility costs continue to be paid, he said.

And some big resorts are paying a half-million dollars a month for health insurance premiums for workers.

“You can never totally shut down a resort,” Antone said, adding that they look like “ghost towns” these days. All that’s missing is the tumble weeds, he said.

While no major hotel company has gone into bankruptcy or bankruptcy protection, Antone said “we are getting close” to the ability of hotel corporations to hold on without guests.

“That saying the rock and the hard place, we’re here. This is it,” Antone said. “Do we open up our borders and possibly our population gets infected and overwhelms our hospital, or do we stay closed and wait until the hotels can’t pay the medical benefits anymore and six months of unemployment runs out?”

Antone believes that keeping the community safe and getting people back to work is possible. “That’s what we want; that’s what we need; that’s what we gotta do,” he said.

He did not have a definitive date for the possible implementation on the travel bubble.

In June, there were only 1,929 visitors to Maui, compared to 297,449 last year, the Hawaii Tourism Authority report said last week. In recent calculations, visitors spent an average of 27.24 days, likely reflecting the two-week quarantine for trans-Pacific tourists. Last year, visitors spent 7.68 days on Maui.

Most of the visitors, 1,289, came from the U.S. West, where most visitors to Maui come from normally.

There were 110 visitors to Molokai in June and 61 to Lanai.

For the half-year, visitor arrivals on Maui totaled 606,817, down 60 percent from the 1,526,838 in 2019. Molokai logged 14,497 visitors, down 43 percent from January to June 2019; and Lanai, 14,977, down 66 percent.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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