Kauai, Hawaii, USA. - January 11, 2012: Beige brown sand leads to brown rocky cliffs grown on top by green trees under blue sky, bordering blue ocean water. Hidden fisherman.
Honolulu, Hawaii CNN  — 

Honolulu is a travel town synonymous with Waikiki Beach, a stretch of sand so crowded it seems impossible to find an empty patch to sit, with tourists bobbing in and out of shops and restaurants that line Kalakaua Avenue having the tropical beach vacation travelers wait their entire lives to fulfill.

However, since March, stores and restaurants have shuttered and a once-bustling Waikiki sits like a ghost town, almost unrecognizable save the cerulean blue water and iconic skyline.

The mandatory quarantine for arrivals to Hawaii went into effect March 26.

But that is about to change with the launch of a pre-travel coronavirus testing program that the local government hopes will help kick-start the decimated economy by welcoming back trans-Pacific travelers.

An empty Waikiki Beach awaits the arrival of tourists with the state's pre-travel testing program, set to launch October 15, 2020.

A different Hawaii

Beginning on October 15, Hawaii’s pre-arrival testing program will allow tourists to skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine with a negative Covid test.

But travelers may not recognize the Hawaii that greets them. Mask mandates, temperature checks, closures, and contact tracing requirements are just a few of the measures 2020 arrivals should anticipate at touchdown.

With tourism’s much-anticipated rebirth on the horizon, the state has made it clear that travelers are expected to abide by local governance, which includes wearing a mask or facial covering when in public and following physical distancing guidelines.

In Hawaii, a mask or facial covering is required in public.

“Visitors will likely notice that beaches and parks are less crowded than normal. Most will be open with restrictions, which vary by county,” Lei-Ann Field, of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, told CNN.

While local businesses have tried to restructure in an effort to meet the state’s mandates and remain operational, the allure of a truly tranquil, all-access trip may not be a 2020 reality for travelers.

Tiered reopening

Oahu remains in Tier 1 of a tightly sanctioned four tier reopening strategy, which mandates social gatherings, including beach trips and hikes, are limited to five people, and restaurants, retailers and partially enclosed attractions, like the zoo and botanical gardens, can only operate at 50% capacity.

Ala Moana Center, the largest open-air shopping center in the world, and International Marketplace, two favored destinations for both tourists and residents, feature signs instructing visitors to wear mandated facial coverings and access to common seating areas is restricted in accordance with state mandates.

Stores that have been able to remain open feature lines out the door trying to comply with limited occupancy mandates, while other storefronts are dark, unable to balance the economic cost of reopening.

Covid-19, and the resulting impact on tourism, has resulted in a loss of 95% of Kōloa Rum Company's Hawaii-generated revenue and 50% of employees remain on furlough.

In this phase, helicopter tours, short-term rentals, bars and nightclubs all remain closed, thereby removing only-accessible-by-helicopter views of the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Valley or Molokai’s sea cliffs from any itineraries.

Luaus have closed their doors until further notice and popular outdoor destinations for tourists like Mauna Kea Summit, Diamond Head State Monument, Hanauma Bay State Park and Iao Valley State Monument remain closed.

On Kauai, Kōloa Rum Company’s tasting room has sat empty since March, something the company doesn’t see changing for at least another month.

“The earliest possible reopening date is November 15, however, this will depend on visitor arrivals, hotel occupancy rates and guidance from local government and health officials,” Kōloa Rum CEO Bob Gunther said.

“We will not reopen until we are confident that we have the protocols and procedures in place that will protect our employees and customers and provide for an enjoyable shopping experience.”

Pre-travel program

Though the launch of the pre-travel program has been pushed back multiple times by Governor David Ige, industry professionals remain cautiously optimistic.

“The industry approaches October 15 with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and work and preparation that has gone forward to make this happen,” said John DeFries, CEO of Hawaii Tourism Authority.

To dispel confusion about how the state will balance the impending arrival of tourists with necessary safety precautions, officials encourage prospective visitors to monitor HawaiiCovid19.com for the most up-to-date information regarding entry protocols.

“The pre-travel testing program is a multi-tiered approach executed by government and the private sector and combines our pre-travel test program, airport health screening, airline and hotel safety protocols, improved contact tracing and other safety measures that can bring trans-Pacific travelers back to the Islands in a safe and measured way,” Ige said in an October 7 press conference held at the airport.

“There are thousands of moving parts and things are continually changing each and every day.”

Hawaii Pre-travel Test flow chart

Travelers heading to the Hawaiian Islands must first create a profile on Safe Travels, which helps the state track and enforce quarantine rules for visitors who wish to arrive without pre-travel testing.

The new program requires individuals to complete a pre-travel Covid test within 72 hours of travel. Passengers who present a negative Covid result will not be subject to the state’s 14-day quarantine program.

Only nucleic acid amplification tests are approved and must be processed by licensed laboratories and trusted partners that have been designated by the state. Neither antibody nor antigen tests will be accepted by the state, although individual islands may implement their own protocols. Travelers are responsible for the cost of the test and children under five do not need to be tested.

But the program doesn’t come without caveats. The state plans to implement a secondary surveillance testing program where 10% of incoming visitors will be selected and tested at random at the airport and each island will be handling the arrival of visitors differently.

The Island of Hawaii will require an antigen test for all visitors upon arrival, and both Maui and Kauai are considering similar options. If the rapid-response antigen test given to arrivals comes back positive, travelers will then be required to take a PCR test and quarantine until the results return.

“We had hoped for ‘sandwich’ testing, where visitors would be tested before departure and after arrival in Hawaii in order to keep Hawaii a citadel safe from Covid,” said Peter Merriman, a chef and restaurateur with locations across the Islands. “But it turns out we don’t have enough testing capacity so just a single pre-travel test is required.”

Limited island-hopping

The initiative allows for some inter-island travel. Maui and Kauai Counties, for instance, will allow travelers who present negative pre-travel Covid tests to visit even after vacationing in another island.

Travelers going between Oahu, Kauai and Maui Counties can avoid the 14-day quarantine if their pre-travel test is negative.

While the Road to Hana in Maui is open, facilities along the way may be limited.

“We appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding as we assess the best solution to keep our community and travelers safe and healthy,” said Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, an emergency medicine physician, in an e-mailed statement.

Early reports this summer touted Hawaii as a coronavirus success story and the state made plans for a modest reopening for residents. When virus numbers rose to alarming heights, local government instated another shutdown and Hawaii quickly became a cautionary tale on containment, as the tourism industry plunged further into chaos.

Subsequent flip-flopping on shutdown mandates, coupled with Governor Ige’s delayed reopening plan, has led to mass layoffs across the hospitality industry within the state.

Hawaiian Airlines was forced to slash their workforce, citing a demand for air travel at 90% less than 2019, and the company has announced the suspension of ‘Ohana service, which offered passenger flights between Molokai and Lanai, beginning November 1, creating fewer route options between islands.

Closed – for now or forever

Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center, a popular themed park and museum that explores the heritage of the Pacific Islands, reported a 30% reduction in workforce, stating the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s prediction of tourism not returning to 2019 levels until 2025 as a determining factor, and remains closed.

Beach party luaus, like this one on Hawaii Island, won't be happening for now.

After more than 50 years of service, landmark restaurants like Top of Waikiki and Dillingham Saimin have closed permanently, while others have temporarily shuttered until tourism revenues return.

Nate Gyotoku works as the executive director of a non-profit in Honolulu and is used to traveling home to Hilo on the Island of Hawaii once a month to see friends and family, a situation that is not uncommon to residents, but which is now impossible because of the state’s restrictions on much inter-island travel.

Despite hesitations from a health safety perspective, Gyotoku feels reopening to tourism is necessary.

“I think we have to reopen for tourism in some way, because it is such a big part of our economy,” he said. “I’m kind of apprehensive, because of having more people coming in from a safety perspective, but people need to get back to work.”

Gyotoku admitted that although welcoming tourists back is necessary, it presents a sustainability issue that has plagued the chain of islands in recent years with overtourism.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said, referencing the Islands’ fragile ecosystems and the strain an influx of visitors puts on locations with finite resources. “I would rather keep Hawaii as a premier destination like it used to be where a visitor who comes spends more money, but it’s fewer visitors versus what we are trending toward, which is more tourists spending less.”

Welcome back

Hotel Wailea's owner Jonathan McManus says they are ready to welcome back visitors and cites their open-air dining and connection to nature as part of the property's safety plans.

Jonathan McManus, owner of Hotel Wailea in Maui, agreed, adding that hotel properties like his have used this time to confidently welcome back visitors.

There are direct flights into Maui, Kauai and the Island of Hawaii from the mainland US, and these arrivals are covered under the pre-travel testing program.

“We have gone through every inch of the property to ensure all of our amenities, dining and experiences have safety and well-being in mind, and are naturally distant,” McManus shared.

“Welcoming back tourists in a sustainable, low-impact manner is critical to securing our future for the islands and will ensure we can continue to share the best of what Hawaii has to offer for future generations.”

While coronavirus may have gutted a once booming tourism industry in the Islands, leaving residents to pick up the pieces, the aloha spirit is alive and well.

“The people who live in Hawaii have embraced mask wearing and the spirit of aloha inherently includes concern for one another’s well-being,” Merriman said. “We hope visitors to Hawaii will adopt that same approach in order to keep everyone safe.”

Kait Hanson is a freelance writer and photographer based in Honolulu, Hawaii.