Every week we comb through the news to find employment trends affecting the hospitality industry so you don’t have to. This week’s topic: Hawaii’s COVID recovery. 

As the hospitality industry continues to work on its’ recovery, experts are looking at travel meccas like Hawaii to understand what steps they’re taking towards rebuilding tourism. Not only is Hawaii in the top ten most visited states, but it also boasts one of the highest concentrations of hospitality and leisure jobs in the country. It’s no wonder that the pandemic has caused their unemployment rates to reach 8.5% (as of April 2021), the highest in the country.  

With this in mind, we can understand that by tourism growing it should help bring the hospitality sector back to its original strength. Which brings us to our topic – Hawaii’s COVID recovery to pre-pandemic levels and how the pandemic impacted tourism. 

Hawaii’s COVID Recovery

When cities around the country began to close businesses and place restrictions on gatherings, Hawaii took it one step further by being the first state to require out-of-state travelers to quarantine upon arrival. While this has a positive impact on its number of COVID cases (to date they’ve had just over 35,000 cases and 500 deaths) compared to the rest of the nation, it was a major factor in its decrease in tourism. Fears about flying also contributed to the downshift in visitors.  

But just how big was the decrease? Comparing April 2020 numbers with the year prior, visitors dropped 99.5%, going from 856,250 arrivals in 2019 to 4,564 in 2020. This staggering change in travelers had a huge impact on the hospitality industry. As it stands right now, reports say that 1 in 6 people are still out of work. And with the impact on the hospitality and tourism industry comes the effect on small and local businesses who rely on travelers for revenue.  

2021 started off slow for Hawaii’s tourism, the last couple of months have provided hope for their eventual recovery. But according to Hawaii News Now (HNN), “While visitor levels are seeing positive growth, the state anticipates that true recovery to pre-COVID levels won’t come until at least 2024.” That said, HNN also reports visitor arrivals are expected to reach 6.6 million this year ― or 64% of arrival numbers from 2019. With all the challenges the Aloha State faced during the pandemic, the fact that they can bring in over two thirds of their arrival numbers is impressive; so what are they doing to draw travelers back in? And where are they in Hawaii’s COVID recovery?

How is the Hawaii bringing back tourism?  

Hawaii’s COVID recovery relies heavily on tourism. With tourism recovering comes growth for other industries like hospitality or the local businesses that rely on travelers. Here are some of the ways officials in Hawaii have worked on rebuilding their tourism sector:  

  • Create unique, more authentic experiences. A recent push to drive visitors to local hotels, called “Malama Hawaii” (via HNN), it offers visitors the opportunity to volunteer with local organizations. This allows them to see a different side of the island. Since the pandemic, an importance has been placed on experiences over material items and capitalizing on this idea can draw travelers in.  
  • Updated pandemic-related visiting requirements. As the country began seeing a substantial decrease in new cases, Hawaii updated its requirements for incoming travelers. Now incoming visitors who provide a negative coronavirus test can skip the mandatory quarantine. This makes travel to the island way more practical because visitors won’t be forced to spend time in isolation. As of this month, officials say that once the state’s vaccination rate hits 70%, there will be no more testing or vaccine requirements for incoming travelers. This change will encourage more visitors and aid in Hawaii’s COVID recovery. 
  • Prioritize hospitality staffing challenges. Hospitality is hugely tied in with tourism, whether it’s because of the dozens of prominent hotels or because of the great service travelers expect on the islands. But like the rest of the country, restaurants across the state are struggling to bring back the workers that make visitors experiences so special. That’s why the steps they’ve taken to encourage workers back to hospitality venues are crucial:  
    • Applying for 3 jobs/week is mandatory when receiving unemployment benefits.  
    • Restaurants, hotels, and retail stores are offering various perks and benefits (like flexible schedules, sign-on bonuses and referral programs) to encourage interviews.  
    • The Hawaii Restaurant Association is connecting job seekers with potential employers via email.  

Hawaii’s COVID recovery will take some time. They’re facing challenges that aren’t unfamiliar to the rest of the country, but the key difference is that visitors can’t just up and drive over on a weekend getaway. Bringing tourism back to comparable pre-pandemic levels is necessary for the survival of this incredible set of islands. If your city/state is still challenges related to the pandemic, consider referencing some of the measures Hawaii has taken to help shape your own recovery plan.