LIHU‘E — Kaua‘i’s tourism industry can’t find people to work.
Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau, said that while the island’s tourism industry is recovering, the biggest problem is recruiting employees.
“A lot of people are not coming back to work,” Kanoho said at a Lihu‘e Business Association virtual meeting last week. “So, until such time that people come back to work, we will not be able to expand services, or even get back what we had. That is going to be the biggest factor right now.”
In 2019, Kaua‘i would average anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 visitors a month, Kanoho reported. In April of this year, Kaua‘i had 41,905 visitors, and in May 73,018, according to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.
According to a state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations report, the county had an 11.3% unemployment rate in May, the highest in the state. The statewide rate in May was 7.5%.
Holo Holo Charters’ General Manager Chandra Bertsch has found difficulty in hiring experienced workers.
“That was a devastating part of COVID is having to lay off the majority of our staff when that happened,” Bertsch said. “In our specific industry, too, we’re not just tour guides, we’re also boaters. We’re in the marine industry. And the skill set is very important for our captain and crew. And when I looked at it, I mean, the collective years of experience that we lost from our employees, probably over 200 years.”
Bertsch said she had employees who were with them for 10 to 20 years, and some that have been on the Napali Coast for five to 15 years.
“Just looking at that devastation, we’ve had people that left the islands, we’ve had people that changed industry or professions, and we’ve had people that just can’t come back for their whatever circumstances,” Bertsch said. “So it’s been tough to get back to where we were. And we’ve been training a lot of new people in the industry, which is great.”
Since April 5, when Kaua‘i rejoined the Safe Travels program, restaurants have been operating at 50% capacity. That will increase next week when restaurants and bars may operate at 75% capacity when Kaua‘i hits Tier 5 on July 8.
“Which should be fairly soon, when we hit 60% on vaccinations. So things are moving quite quickly,” Kanoho said. “And in the meantime, I know everybody’s kind of readjusting to life with tourism. And the rental-car situation certainly has been something none of us really expected.”
In recent months, Kaua‘i has faced a rental-car shortage, causing prices to go up and leaving some visitors stranded with no car to drive off in when they arrive at Lihu‘e Airport.
“We’ve talked about this as an opportunity as much as it is a crisis,” Kanoho said. “And the opportunity is we’ve talked in the past about shuttles and really trying to see if there was a way to lessen the number of cars on the island. And you won’t ever get everybody on a shuttle, but if there was somebody that was staying here for seven to 10 days and they only needed a car for three or four of those days, we could shuttle them to their resort area or accommodations and then have them rent as needed.”
Kanoho credits HTA and the Mayor’s Office for a shuttle solution when faced with this rental-car crisis. Local residents, too, are jumping on the opportunity to build business through renting extra cars.
“So it’s not as easy as everybody thinks, but we’ve been able to stand up some shuttles and get people that are stranded at the airport a little more support,” Kanoho said.
“I know some individuals are doing well with Turo, which is their individual cars being rented to visitors, and then some people are doing Lyft and Uber, which is helping. And what’s really happening is when they get to the accommodations, they don’t have a car, they really can’t do much.”
LBA President Pat Griffin said before the pandemic, there was increasing stress in the community about the social and environmental strains of so much tourism here.
“After 15 months, tourism is ramping back up, and our economy is on its way to recovery,” Griffin said. “It’s especially important now to continue the discussion about how the visitor industry can give back to Kaua‘i more than it takes.”
Stephanie Shinno, education and business reporter, can be reached at 245-0424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.