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Delta variant surge has had little impact on tourism

Despite the recent spike in Delta variant COVID-19 cases, Hawaii’s popularity as a travel destination continues to grow.

At a Monday meeting of the House Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, state officials and visitor industry representatives discussed the effects — or lack thereof — the current outbreak in the state has had on the recovery of the visitor industry.

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said during the meeting that the increase in visitor arrivals to Hawaii — which in July totaled nearly 90% of those in July 2019 — have exceeded UHERO’s most optimistic predictions from earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Bonham said, the factors that have led to the resurgence of visitors — pent-up demand, excess savings and “wanderlust” — remain in force, and he expects visitor numbers in September will be on par with those in 2019.

Unfortunately, the sharp increase in visitors has not translated to a sharp increase in employment. Bonham said Hawaii’s job recovery is only 40% complete, with about 94,000 jobs statewide still unfilled, and the rate of labor recovery has been slower than UHERO’s predictions.

All this coincides with a new spike in COVID cases, which is largely driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant among Hawaii’s unvaccinated residents, who are about 40% of the state’s total population.

“Right now, there’s no sign in the high-frequency data that we’re tracking of a market slowdown of any kind associated with Delta,” Bonham said. “There has been a jump in the frequency of people searching for ‘COVID’ on Google, but mobility data … has not gone down. People are not going to restaurants less, at least according to OpenTable data. There’s been no sudden dropoff in activity.”

While Bonham said the Delta spike could act as a disincentive for people to return to the workforce, he also pushed back on the idea that the federal and state government’s COVID-related unemployment programs are solely responsible for people being unwilling to look for jobs.

In states that have already canceled those benefits, he said, there is “virtually no difference in their employment-to-population ratios.”

Bonham noted that the rate of infection among Hawaii residents is, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, increasing at the same rate as that of the nation.

“It just shows that we really are in a new situation, and the worst that we’ve experienced so far during this pandemic,” Bonham said. “So, unfortunately, even with the strong tourism rebound, we’re not really in a position for that sort of pandemic-in-the-rearview-mirror picture.”

However, neither Bonham nor health care officials believe the state is likely to return to previous levels of lockdowns.

Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of the Hawaii Medical Service Association, said the state’s highest priority right now must be the continued promotion of vaccines in order to prevent the further transmission of the Delta variant among the unvaccinated.

“If it’s raining, you tell people to wear a raincoat when you go outside, and if it’s not raining too hard, the raincoat’s going to do well and it’s going to keep you pretty dry,” Mugiishi said. “If it’s just torrential … somebody might have to issue a mandate saying stay home. … But if you’re trying to get people to wear a raincoat, you don’t get them to do that if they have to stay home.”

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

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