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Businesses, attractions struggle as cruise ships still months away from returning

It has been nearly one year since cruise ships stopped service to Hawaii, and there is no hint of when they might return.

Earlier this month, Norwegian Cruise Lines once again extended its suspension of all of its cruises — including the Hawaii-operating Pride of America — through the end of May 2021. Carnival Cruise Line has done the same, Princess Cruises has canceled all sailings worldwide through May 15, and Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean through the end of April.

The government of Canada, meanwhile, suspended all passenger cruises through Canadian waters until the end of February 2022.

Hawaii Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said cruise companies are awaiting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before announcing plans. But with the CDC’s guidance also not forthcoming in the immediate future, cruises do not seem likely to return for quite some time.

And with cruise traffic to the island absent for nearly a year, businesses that relied on that traffic are struggling.

“It’s a crapshoot whether we’ll be able to get back to work this year,” said Jay Trombley, owner of Keikana Tours, which operates the Hoppa-On Hoppa-Off tour bus in Hilo.

The service shut down in March, after the cruises stopped coming, Trombley said. The company tried to offer service for visitors arriving by plane, to little success.

“Most of the people who are coming these days are renting cars now,” Trombley said. “Nobody’s calling about tours these days … It’s a shame, we had something good going before the pandemic.”

While 2019 was not quite the state’s strongest year for cruise traffic since the 2008 recession, it was still robust, with more than 277,000 cruise passengers visiting Hawaii, 94% of whom visited the Big Island.

With even a Hilo staple like Keikana Tours — which Trombley said employed eight drivers before the pandemic — in dire straits, smaller cruise-reliant companies are faring no better. Big Island Aina Tours, a small husband-and-wife-operated tour business in Hilo is indefinitely closed after inquiries for tours dropped to practically zero, said co-owner Tina Nelson.

“We are planning to reopen when the cruises come back,” Nelson said. “But it’s just wait and see for now.”

Dinnie Kysar, president of tourism nonprofit Destination Hilo, said the Aloha Information Station at Mo‘oheau Park is now open only one day a week for a few hours, and on some of those days, it gets no visitors at all.

“We get some people looking for directions or what’s open,” Kysar said. “But we’re helping locals with the bus schedules more now.”

The Lyman Museum in Hilo now receives only about 10 visitors per day.

“Usually during the cruise season, we would see two full buses a month, which is about 100 more people visiting the museum,” said Barbara Moir, president and executive director of the museum. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a lot for us.”

Kysar, Nelson and Trombley each expressed hope that cruises might return sometime in the summer. Currently, NCL’s suspension of cruises ostensibly ends in June, while a Hawaii port schedule has the Pride of America docking in Hilo as early as May 4 — although these dates can and have been pushed back multiple times in the past.

But even if cruises return, there is no guarantee they will save local businesses.

“We’re not linked directly with the cruise lines,” Trombley said. “They contract with specific tour groups for their passengers, but we’re, you know, we’re right there and sometimes passengers heard about us and they look for us.”

“But what I’m worried about is if they’ll only let passengers tour with their contracted groups when they come back,” Trombley went on.

Kysar said she has heard discussions about cruise lines only working in “pods” in order to avoid possible COVID-19 exposures: passengers only being allowed on approved tours, visiting only approved businesses. Such an arrangement could be lucrative for the lucky businesses allowed within the pod, but would leave many others in the same state they’re in now — which many won’t be able to endure for much longer.

“If we’re not back to work by the end of the year, I think we’re going to have to look at something else to do,” Trombley said.

Nelson said she has been lucky enough to fall back on a second job, but added that the state’s pandemic unemployment programs have been “a godsend.”

Despite the devastating impacts of the pandemic around the world, Nelson said she believes people won’t stay away from cruises for long.

“Our customer demographic already was a bit among the higher-age group, so maybe there will be fewer people,” Nelson said. “But I think a lot of people are still infatuated with cruises.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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