It’s hard to believe we’re coming to the close of another year. And more than any year before, we’re ready to say goodbye.
Rioting and looting… an election year of epic proportions… and, oh, there’s the pandemic still putting the brakes on our plans to escape the dumpster fire that is 2020.
A Hawaiian vacation sounds about perfect as the cold weather sets in across much of the U.S. But our fellow citizens in the Pacific say, “Not so fast.”
Proud American Traveler has reported a great deal on the travel restrictions sweeping the globe as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hawaii, a favorite tropical destination for Americans because it’s the only tropical location actually part of the U.S., has taken its island status and run with it this year.
This past spring when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic — and the world’s leaders began grounding us for what’s felt like the rest of our lives — Hawaii was faced with a unique situation.
While many states went on lockdown, we were still free to drive across the borders of neighboring states and escape the growing sense of cabin fever.
Not Hawaii. Because of the eight major islands comprising the state, local officials had a little bit more to figure out in order to keep the virus in check.
They came out swinging with a plan that would make any traveler feel like they were entering a communist country: Arrive on one island; quarantine for two weeks. Try to visit another island? Quarantine for another two weeks. Period.
This plan put the serious kibosh on tourism – the state’s largest money-maker — because, seriously, who has that kind of time? For some, like people moving to one of the islands long-term, it was a pain in the rear, but they were left with little choice.
Since the start of this modern-day zombie apocalypse, many states have imposed restrictions that ask for travelers to quarantine for 14 days if they’re coming from a “hot-spot” state.
But, really, who’s enforcing this? The beauty of the United States is that we can hop in our cars and drive all over the country – no checkpoints, no border security guards taking our temperatures.
It’s not so easy, though, to get past all these restrictions in Hawaii. You can’t just drive wherever you please. Planes and boats are necessary for getting to each of the islands – and it’s easy to track when non-residents arrive.
Now, many months into the pandemic, the islands so dependent on tourism are working to try and entice visitors back – finally admitting that no one in their right mind was going to travel all that way to spend two weeks in a hotel room on their own dime.
So, the State of Hawaii has developed a way for travelers to avoid the 14-day quarantine period – the Safe Travels program.
They thought this would be a brilliant idea – all travelers from the mainland U.S. or between islands must be tested for COVID prior to arrival, therefore proving they were healthy and worthy of the Hawaiian welcome.
No negative test, no lei for you.
Big Brother Welcomes You
But, as a U.S. state, there’s still plenty of bureaucracy – red tape and applications and websites and headaches.
The state requires anyone landing in any of the islands to submit an online application and open a Safe Travels account. (Here we go again – another username, password, and security questions. This never gets old.)
Then, you must enter every leg of your itinerary into the system so you can receive a special code via email (or on the app for your “convenience”), which you must present to the airline at every stop.
And then, you must take a COVID test and get a negative result to gain entry.
But not just any test from, say, your local CVS or Walgreens. It must be an FDA-certified Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) from a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) lab.
This is already sounding way too complicated and time-consuming, even for the chance to have a fruity drink and sink my toes into volcanic sand.
Most of these test results are available the same day, some as quickly as 30 minutes – but that’s not always a guarantee. If your results aren’t in yet and you arrive in Hawaii, you still have to quarantine until they come in and are entered into your account and you’ve received a confirmation email.
I just love confirmation emails. Pretty soon, I believe we’re not going to be allowed to get out of bed in the morning without a confirmation email giving us permission to live another day. This, my friends, will be the future – after we’re all microchipped, that is.
And here’s the other problem with pre-travel testing – your negative test must be taken and uploaded into your Safe Travels program account no more than 72 hours prior to your arrival from the state of your last departure.
So if your plane is delayed, a flight is cancelled, or any of the other inconveniences that so often occur, you’ll have to be retested in a strange city, re-upload your results, re-wait for approval, and reconsider whether the palm trees and hibiscus flowers are really all they’re cracked up to be.
And here’s the really big kicker – the program is already backfiring.
On more than one occasion, travelers have cleared all the hurdles and kissed the ring of the state – and then they’ve found out they were positive for COVID after they get there.
Because test results aren’t always accurate. And there are no guarantees in life.
As much as people want to experience the beauty of the Hawaiian islands, and as much as locals want the economy to recover, it seems to me they don’t really want visitors right now.
Native Hawaiians have passed down the history of Westerners bringing disease to the islands, decimating the population by the turn of the twentieth century. This history still seems to be in the back of their minds.
And with all the changes we’ve experienced this year, the islands’ reputation of being a friendly, welcoming paradise is changing too.
Mask mandates and social distancing are strictly enforced, even outdoors, to the tune of a $5,000 fine or a year in jail. In Honolulu, thousands of warnings and fines have already been issued, and police patrols are on the rise.
Many local restaurants and other businesses are refusing entry to tourists or anyone who has traveled within the last 14 days.
Sure, you can order your Huli Huli chicken online and take it back to your hotel, but you probably won’t be able to dine in. Residents must show their state IDs to cross the threshold. (And some won’t let residents who traveled recently inside either.)
Reviews on Yelp and posts on social media are describing the catch-22. Hawaii needs tourists. Businesses need customers. And these tourist-customers are getting angry.
People who travel to Hawaii after they pay for COVID testing and jump through all the hoops – only to be turned away from the places that provide the full Hawaiian experience — are ticked off, to say the least.
And it’s soured their perception of the island’s supposedly welcoming nature, leading many to find another dream vacation destination.
Business owners on several of the islands are working to do damage control, saying they’re only trying to keep their communities safe.
Look, I get it. The islands simply don’t have the same capability to handle a massive outbreak of the virus due to limited medical facilities, equipment, and staff. On Kauai, for example, there are only nine ICU beds.
But this definitely seems like a case of biting the hand that feeds you.
Hawaii saw its eighth straight year of record tourism and its positive impact on the economy in 2019. Business was booming, and residents didn’t seem to mind at all.
Only time will tell how many visitors are willing to run through the paces set by the State of Hawaii.
And from all the doomsday predictions on the news, this pandemic isn’t going anywhere for a while.
Perhaps Hawaii regrets its statehood. Maybe they’ve reconsidered this whole tourist mecca status they’ve acquired over the years. Maybe they just want to keep their paradise to themselves.
While no man is an island, Hawaii’s got a whole bunch of them to keep track of. If they want to be stranded alone until we’re all back in the clear, that’s their prerogative.
But this Proud American Traveler won’t be jumping through all these hoops just for a little sun and sand. Hawaii will have to wait.
It doesn’t sound much like an island paradise to me right now, and there are plenty of other states in the sea.
So, a hui hou, Hawaii – until we meet again.