Hawaii wants tourists. Tourists want Hawaii. But the rules are complicated.
By HANNAH SAMPSON | The Washington Post | Published: February 4, 2021
John Derrick has run an online guide to Hawaii travel for nearly 20 years, so he's used to answering questions about the destination. But these days, the questions he gets at GuideofUS Hawaii are a little more complicated.
At what age do kids need to be tested? Does my covid-19 vaccination count for anything? Will my large family violate rules about safe gatherings? If I've already had coronavirus, am I good to go?
"It really does feel like you need a PhD in Hawaii Safe Travels to parse all the information," Derrick said.
Hawaii essentially shut down its borders to travel in March by requiring a 14-day quarantine for anyone who flew in; officials told people not to come, and violators were arrested.
After seven strict months, and several delays, the state reopened its doors in mid-October with a program that lets visitors bypass what is now a 10-day quarantine with a negative coronavirus test taken at least 72 hours before they depart. Those tests have to be done by state-approved partners to count for the "Safe Travels" program.
Now, the tourism-dependent destination is trying to balance the safety of its communities, some of which have limited resources for sick residents, with the economic boost more visitors would bring. It's not an easy task.
Derrick said he wades through county websites and the state's tourism site every day to find out what travelers need to know.
"Most visitors I know are not going to go visit 12 different websites to figure out what the policies are," he said.
Would-be travelers have to navigate a tangle of requirements depending on where they plan to go and how they'll get there, with new rules popping up and even more potential changes ahead if some elected officials get their way.
Earlier this month, Maui started requiring visitors to either download an exposure notification app or enable their exposure notification setting on their mobile phone; those who refuse will have to quarantine.
Want to travel between islands? In most cases, another test is required to avoid quarantine - but not if you're going to Oahu. Travelers heading there from another Hawaiian island do not need a test and will not need to quarantine.
Kauai removed itself from the Safe Travels program late last year, but created its own plan that went into effect this month that lets people test before arriving from outside the state, stay in an approved "resort bubble" for three days and then test again to escape quarantine. Those pre-arrival tests do not have to be with state-approved partners.
To complicate things more, travelers coming to Kauai from Oahu, Maui County, or the island of Hawaii who have been in the state for more than 72 hours can skip quarantine if they take a pre-travel test from an approved state partner. That test has to be taken within 72 hours of departing to Kauai.
"It's ever changing, it's ever evolving," said Sharolyn Kawakami, resort manager at Ko'a Kea Hotel & Resort in Kauai, where the rules are most stringent. "It's very difficult for the consumer to even keep track of all this."
Vikram Seshadri, a Global Travel Collection travel adviser, has created a cheat sheet for clients. He tells them the websites they need to visit, the forms they need to fill out, the tests approved by the state and what they should expect when they arrive. (For example: prepare to show proof of your negative test constantly.)
"They're not messing around," he said. "For clients to know all this, it's a lot. It becomes a little bit of a hassle and trying to walk them through this process can be a little daunting."
Seshadri, who is based in Northern California, said he did not book anyone on Hawaii trips when the mandatory 14-day quarantine was in effect. But he went himself for a few weeks starting Thanksgiving, and now has a handful of clients on vacation there and more in the coming weeks.
For travelers who are getting away for just four or five days, he's not recommending Kauai because of its testing requirements.
"You're stuck for three days on the property," he said. "It sort of defeats the purpose of going to this incredibly pristine island where nature takes center stage."
Kawakami, the Ko'a Kea resort manager, said guests who are in the resort bubble program still relax by the pool, have a social-distanced cocktail party at the pool bar, take laps around the property and watch sunset with Mai Tais. The beach, however, is off limits, and guests in the bubble are kept separate from locals or visitors who have already completed their testing.
She said the priority is to make sure guests, staff and the community are safe, even as the resort copes with a significant drop in tourism.
"We need to be able to operate and keep everybody safe," Kawakami said. "We're really honored to give guests the space to relax and enjoy as much of the sunshine and our resort as they can."
At least one lawmaker in Hawaii is pushing for an end to local differences in travel restrictions. House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, introduced a bill this week that would make the rules consistent statewide.
"The travel policy has become confusing, not just for Hawaii residents, but also for people who want to visit Hawaii," he said. Saiki said he believes the state would see more visitors if the policies "were clearer and consistent."
Also potentially on the horizon: an exemption for vaccinated travelers. Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a physician and covid liaison for the state, has proposed that people who get both doses of the vaccine and wait another 14 days be allowed to visit without a test or quarantine. The plan would still need to be approved by the governor, and depends on a big question that's still being researched: whether vaccinated people can spread the virus.
If research shows that the vaccine stops transmission, Green said he would envision first putting the new plan into place for travel between islands and then for people coming from outside Hawaii.
"If all goes well, sometime mid- to late March, we may be able to get this done so that people can more freely travel to paradise," he said. Green said he also hopes to have a more uniform set of rules for travel.
"My advice is: get vaccinated and expect the Hawaii rules to simplify and improve as we get into the spring," he said. "Prepare yourselves to have a pretest if you are not vaccinated."
In the meantime, some travelers are finding the restrictions prohibitive.
Seshadri said one couple he worked with had postponed a trip from March 2020 to September to December before finally calling it off. He said they plan to revisit the trip when restrictions have lifted and they have been vaccinated.
"Vacations should give you peace of mind," he said. "If you're going to be stressed out until you get there, it's not worth it."