LIHU‘E — Could a soft opening of the state to Japanese visitors be the first strategy in establishing the state’s economy and reinventing tourism?
It’s an idea that Hawai‘i Executive Collaborative member Paul Yonamine, Chief Executive Officer with Central Pacific Financial Corporation, brought up to the state’s Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 on Thursday.
The committee agreed to work with Yonamine on this proposed pilot program to potentially establish a Hawai‘i-Japan travel bubble, possibly as early as July. The committee offered to help facilitate the creation of this strategy.
Much of the detailed work — like officially connecting with Japan, airlines, having a tighter hold on testing, possibly traveling tourists — need to be worked out, but as Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D-24) said, this could be a “first draft of a restarting strategy.”
Japan is the state’s largest international market, with 1.4 million visitors bringing in about $2.1 billion in 2019. Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted the country’s state of emergency on Monday.
As of May 28, Japan has over 16,683 cases and over 867 deaths, according to the World Health Organization Health Emergency Dashboard. Over 13,000 cases have recovered.
One of the pros to bringing in Japanese tourists is their willingness to follow rules, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D-14) said. But while committee members positively voiced the potential of this program, they were worried about tourists coming in and getting the virus while here. Instituting a measure of testing before boarding a plane could be a way to deter this, but it would likely need approval from the state’s Department of Health and Japan’s government.
Like Hawai‘i, Japan is focused on containing the virus, rigid hygiene protocols, fever tracking and contact tracing, Yonamine said. These measures, Yonamine said, would produce a desirable pilot program for the state and jumpstart the tourism economy and lower unemployment numbers, which hover around 22.3% as of the end of April.
Yonamine has already started developing a Kizuna-Aloha communication campaign, with messages from Gov. David Ige expressing his condolences for canceled travel plans, to keep Hawai‘i “top of mind” to tourists.
“Health and safety can be turned into wellness and value,” Yonamine said.
Some of the first steps the group is planning to work on are bringing together a list of best practices, prerequisites and conditions for traveling.
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.