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Domestic travel to Maui sees Labor Day spike

Arrivals increase comes after leaders request to cut travel amid delta surge

Stanchion-marked lines for Kahului Airport’s TSA checkpoint are not needed on a slow morning Saturday. State and county elected leaders say there has been a decrease in visitors after requests were made to cut travel to Hawaii amid the delta variant surge. But recent state visitor numbers show there was an increase in domestic arrivals on Maui prior to the Labor Day weekend that topped pre-pandemic levels. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Despite requests by both state and county leaders to reduce travel amid COVID-19 surges, domestic travel to Maui spiked — exceeding prepandemic levels — right before Labor Day weekend.

Domestic daily arrivals ahead of the holiday weekend to Maui County show a 27 to 31 percent surge Thursday and Friday compared with the record-setting prepandemic year of 2019, according to recent state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism data.

Leading up to Labor Day’s longer weekend, state and county leaders held multiple press conferences, urging residents to avoid large gatherings and do their part in stopping the spread.

No changes to the state’s Safe Travels program or to intercounty travel were implemented amid Hawaii’s delta-driven surge. The surge, though, has sparked widespread restrictions in other areas, including business capacity trimming, social gathering limit reductions and vaccine card mandates for high-risk sectors that launched Monday for Oahu and start today for Maui.

Instead, county and state leaders requested toward the end of August that travel be curtailed amid what may be peak months of September and October for Hawaii cases.

Saying “it is a risky time to be traveling right now,” Gov. David Ige on Aug. 23 asked that travel be reduced through October so the state can mitigate surging cases. He added that when he last requested a travel reduction — in March of 2020 — there was a 60 percent drop in traffic to Hawaii.

When asked whether the governor’s request to reduce travel is working given record arrivals before Labor Day in Maui, Press Secretary Jodi Leong replied, “Yes, it’s working,” but did not elaborate.

She added that the governor has said many times he will not re-implement a pretravel COVID-19 test or tighten any travel rules.

Mayor Michael Victorino during a news conference Aug. 24 asked that both visitors and residents voluntarily curb travel.

When announcing the new mandates for “high-risk” businesses last week, Victorino said that officials are doing everything they can to keep Maui open — not just for visitors but for residents.

“Yeah, you can say the visitors, but our numbers have dropped off drastically,” Victorino said during the news conference. “There had been a 40, 50 percent drop off in our visitor counts. Why? Because people are scared to travel. The mayor as well as the governor said, ‘Hey, maybe not a good time to come,’ and they’re not coming.”

Victorino on Tuesday afternoon said that his previous numbers citing a 40 to 50 percent drop were from the state Department of Transportation. He also said higher travel counts could be attributed to residents returning.

The timing of recent government requests to reduce travel coincides with a natural decline in arrivals from the U.S. market during the “traditional shoulder period,” when the high summer season enters the slower fall season. The state DBEDT described the transition in its July visitor arrivals press release on Aug. 30.

Still, this year’s domestic arrivals to Maui County remain comparable to 2019 — even weeks after the government’s request to reduce travel, according to DBEDT data.

For Labor Day weekend on Maui, domestic arrivals were in the 4,000 and 5,000 threshold during Thursday and Friday of 2019, according to DBEDT data. This year, they exceeded 6,000 on both days. The weekend itself was flat compared to 2019. Labor Day saw slightly increased arrivals — nearly 1 percent — over 2019.

Rod Antone, Maui Hotel & Lodging Association executive director, is collecting data that shows significant room night cancellations for association properties, which he attributes to the governor’s Aug. 23 request.

Based on data from 23 out of 47 Maui Hotel & Lodging Association property members, there have been 52,004 room night cancellations resulting in $25.2 million in lost revenue, he said in a press release. Also, some general managers are saying occupancy rates have been dropping from high 80s to 30 and 20 percent occupancy.

“Those canceling also mentioned to reservationists that they were doing so because they had read about the governor’s announcement in the news,” Antone said in a news release. “Some may have canceled later due to COVID concerns but a majority cited the comments made during the press conference.”

He added that Kahului Airport had inbound passenger numbers dropping from 7,000 to 8,000 passengers a day to 4,500 a day.

However, when asked about the DBEDT data that paints a different picture of arrivals, Antone on Tuesday said he can’t speculate whether inbound passenger counts are tied to hotel cancellations.

“If people are coming and they’re visitors, I don’t think they’re staying at big properties,” he said. “Everyone has to take into account returning residents. I have friends who dropped off their kids in college who might be part of those numbers.”

State DBEDT director Mike McCartney in the July arrivals news release said arrivals are expected to slow in both September and October starting after the Labor Day weekend.

“Arrivals could dip between a range of 50 percent to 70 percent of the 2019 level,” he said. “If we can contain and effectively control the spread of the delta variant and its negative impact on our health care systems, we certainly can expect travel, including international travel, to start to come back strongly in mid-November and continue to grow through the holiday travel season.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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