Honolulu, Hawaii. Picture: iStock
In Hawaii, the spirit of aloha normally greets visitors with warmth and welcome. Now, while the state has discouraged visitors by requiring them to self-quarantine for 14 days, that culture of generosity might extend to a free return ticket home.
With a $25,000 (R460,000) grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the nonprofit Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii (Vash) has instituted a Covid-19 flight assistance program to return travellers who don’t have the means to follow the mandatory 14-day quarantine — including paying for lodging and food delivery — required of incoming visitors.
Since launching the program on 6 April, the organisation has sent 20 visitors to their airport of origin, including travellers from Guam, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Alabama, and Denver.
“The majority of travellers we have sent back in my opinion have been irresponsible in travelling to Hawaii during the Covid-19 pandemic when they know we are trying to keep Hawaii safe from the spread of this disease,” said Jessica Lani Rich, the president and chief executive of Vash.
The organisation normally provides visitor support, including translation assistance and help with funeral arrangements.
Though visitor arrivals are down nearly 99%, some residents have reported seeing visitors on beaches despite quarantine restrictions and stay-at-home orders. All beaches in Hawaii are closed, though individuals may cross them either to swim, paddle or surf while observing social distancing.
“They either don’t get or are ignoring the message,” Lynne Matusow, a Honolulu resident, wrote in an email to The New York Times. “We have locals, in masks, scolding them for sitting on beaches, with towels, umbrellas, coolers, etc. That is forbidden.”
Rich said some of the visitors Vash has returned home have told her they were taking advantage of low airfares. A round-trip ticket on Southwest Airlines from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, for example, was recently priced at $238 for travel in May.
On 22 April, nearly one month after the governor, David Ige, announced the mandatory 14-day quarantine restriction for incoming arrivals, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said a total of 421 passengers arrived via air, 109 of whom were nonresident visitors.
The number of tourists among them is unknown. The tourism authority counts anyone without Hawaii state identification as a visitor, noting that visitors might include an essential health care or disaster assistance worker, or Hawaii natives now residing on the mainland and returning to stay with family.
“I see maybe one or two tourists a day,” said Ryan Houser, a restaurant “fish sommelier” and Waikiki resident, noting that he can usually spot a tourist by their hotel towel and water floatie from the popular souvenir chain ABC Stores.
“It’s a little offensive,” he added. “I would love to go to the beach every single day if I could but I want to minimise the Covid-19 spread and make sure the curve stays flat.”
According to the state Department of Health, Hawaii has 596 cases of Covid-19 — four newly reported — and 12 deaths as of 23 April.
In a highly publicised case, local TV station KHON reported on a couple who were cited on Oahu for violating quarantine more than once.
“Our residents had to close their businesses and have financial hardships and to have people come here right now and want to vacation, it is reckless,” Rich said, noting her organisation did not pay for the couple, believed to be from Nevada and Australia, to leave. “Hawaii is known for aloha spirit. Let us get through this hardship then we’ll welcome you back with aloha.”
Efforts to shut down tourism, Hawaii’s economic engine, began on 17 March when the governor asked travellers to voluntarily postpone trips for 30 days. On 26 March, he imposed the 14-day self-quarantine for both visitors and returning residents. The quarantine and stay-at-home orders are in effect until 31 May.
Jake Shimabakuro, a popular ukulele musician and Honolulu resident, said he had joined an initiative asking vacationers to postpone trips to the island. “As much as we want tourists to come and enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer, we need to protect our hospitality service workers and at-risk community, especially our seniors,” he wrote in an email.
Away from the most populous island, things are quieter. On Kauai, Judi Glass, a local travel advisor, praised the island’s mayor for enacting a nightly curfew about a week before the state’s quarantine rule.
“We have none of the daily traffic, and it is so peaceful and quiet now,” she wrote in an email.
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