With testing on horizon, tour companies eye reopening

Some wonder if people will still want to travel

A snorkeler spots a Trilogy catamaran during a Molokini Crater tour prior to the pandemic. Tourism-reliant businesses like Trilogy are cautiously “optimistic” that the state will go through with its pre-travel testing plan Oct. 15, though they wonder how many visitors will want to travel. The Maui News / TERRIE ELIKER photo

Visitor industry businesses are cautiously preparing for the return of customers and staff come Oct. 15, but some still have doubts over whether people will be willing to fly once the state rolls out its pre-travel testing program.

“We’re really unsure what the demand will be with the older generation possibly not wanting to travel, what the restrictions will be, how hard it will be for people to get the test within 72 hours,” said Gabe Lucy, president of Trilogy Excursions. “We’re going to take it in phases.”

Gov. David Ige announced Wednesday that the state would be launching the testing program Oct. 15, allowing trans-Pacific travelers who test negative for COVID-19 to skip the state’s 14-day quarantine. The program was originally planned for Aug. 1 but postponed repeatedly as cases rose.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we would’ve been ready in August based on what we’ve learned in the last few months and watching what’s been going on around the rest of the world,” Lucy said.

October is usually a slower month and could give tour companies the chance to refine their plans before visitors return, Lucy said. Trilogy, which had to lay off 90 percent of its roughly 100 employees during the pandemic, has been operating one vessel with a crew of four, making three or four trips a weekend to Molokini and on sunset tours with mostly kamaaina customers.

California visitor Catherine McDonald gazes up at a sting ray in the Maui Ocean Center’s famous glass tunnel during a visit prior to the pandemic. Maui Ocean Center General Manager Tapani Vuori said that if the pre-travel testing program rolls out and demand increases, the center could possibly open as early as Nov. 1.

Most of these sails aren’t moneymakers, but Lucy said it’s helped Trilogy get in the habit of operating under COVID-19 regulations. The company plans to start using more of its six-vessel fleet but will be operating at 50 percent capacity, going from the typical 50 to 60 passengers of past tours to up to 30 and limiting people to five per ticketed group.

Lucy said he’s “optimistic” that the state will stick to the Oct. 15 start date, but if not, they will adjust plans.

“This could be a good opportunity for us to reopen, and again, we’ve needed to do this for a long time, having testing in place,” he said. “Even with the quarantine we felt we needed to have testing in place prior to people coming to the islands.”

Matt Domenichini, owner of Maui Bombers, which offers bike tours down Haleakala, said that while the announcement was good news, he wasn’t sure how effective it would actually be at bringing tourists.

“I don’t know if people are going to come even if they can come,” he said. “The people I’ve talked to, family and friends on the Mainland, a lot of places they can’t even get a test if they want one. And then to get one and book a trip, and what happens if it comes out positive and you can’t go?”

Prior to the pandemic, Domenichini averaged around 25 tours and 100 people a month. Now business has dropped 98 percent — the two kamaaina customers he got last month kept it from falling 100 percent.

However, Domenichini said he may be able to survive longer than some bigger companies because he only has three part-time employees and “very low overhead.” He said once the pre-travel testing program goes into effect, he plans to do only private tours.

Haleakala National Park, meanwhile, is preparing for more visitors after seeing 195,018 visitors from January to June, a 60.9 percent decrease from the 498,603 visitors it saw during the same period last year. The park closed March 21 and reopened some areas on May 27 and has been slowly phasing in activities.

“We’ve appreciated the community’s kokua in recreating responsibly while they’re visiting the park,” spokeswoman Jin Prugsawan said. “As visitation increases beyond Oct. 15, we still expect the same things of our visitors to make sure they’re bringing face coverings and continuing social distancing practices.”

Prugsawan said the park has 72 employees and that most have been working during the pandemic, focusing on critical resource management projects, providing in-person and virtual visitor services, protecting visitors and resources and caring for the trails and facilities.

Other businesses that have stayed closed throughout the entirety of the pandemic are looking to possibly reopen after Oct. 15.

Maui Ocean Center General Manager Tapani Vuori said that if the pre-travel testing program takes place and demand starts building back up, “I would say we may be able to open up by Nov. 1.”

Since closing on March 18, the ocean center hasn’t been making money but still has expenses that include running the pumps and motors in the aquarium’s tanks. Vuori said Maui Electric Co. has allowed the center to postpone some payments.

The center’s staff, which could reach 145 during peak seasons, has dropped to about 20, and those who are left have taken on pay cuts and additional tasks — even Vuori has been working on motors and pumps and digging trenches.

Things will be different once the park reopens; there will be social distancing stickers and signage, plexiglass in the retail and food-and-beverage areas, limits on the number of visitors and contactless payment.

The center will not offer presentations — though people may be able to download them virtually — and the 118-seat Sphere will be limited to half-capacity. Touch pools will still be available but behind-the-scenes tours will not.

While his business thrives off the visitor industry, Vuori was concerned about returning to the old way of doing tourism.

“This is really a great opportunity for us as a community to really look at and envision tourism post-pandemic,” he said. “It may sound funny coming from a person who is in charge of an operation who depends so heavily on tourists, but really for our long-term well-being, I think we should really have those conversations.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Kihei Community Association President Mike Moran, who will likely see more visitors return to his area of beaches, restaurants and hotels.

“We’re hearing so much from the county end that this was the wake-up call,” Moran said. “We know tourism was out of control, and I hope that’s not another thing that we just forget about and say, how fast can we do it? How fast can we get back up to those numbers? No, we have to make adjustments.”

Moran, who said that the association does not have a position on the pre-travel testing program, said that personally, “I’m betwixt and between.”

“I certainly get that we have to do something to get business back and people working again,” he said. “The biggest effect has (been on) the guys that work directly in the visitor industry, and of course in South Maui, we have a lot of people who work here.”

But, he added, “I would not be surprised if in two weeks it gets delayed again.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.


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