COVID-19 Impacts Hawaii’s Tourism The Most

By Elpidio R. Estioko

For a state that thrives on tourism as a major income generator for the local government, Hawaii is the worst recipient of the COVID-19 pandemic! The single most sector of the tourism industry the pandemic hit big time is the hotel and lodging industry in which hotel employees and staff are suffering and eventually, losing their livelihood.

In an article written by Lauren Aratani in The Guardian, she wrote: “Hawaii avoided a coronavirus spike – but its tourist economy is shattered.” Yes, the decision to shut down helped keep coronavirus cases down on the islands but unemployment surged and heavily affected Hawaii’s economy which relies heavily on the tourism industry.

Reports said that Jordyn Wallace, front desk worker of Sheraton Waikiki, was a victim of the pandemic losing her job to COVID-19 thus spoiling her life big time!

“I have never seen Waikiki so empty. It felt surreal because no matter what time of day it is, you always see visitors in Waikiki,” Wallace commented in said report. “We have more than 1,000 rooms. It’s a huge hotel, and to not see a single soul on property was crazy.”

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce said: “Every day, there is something on the news that announces businesses are shutting down. These are not new business. They are family businesses, they are institutions, and these are businesses that have survived economic challenges in the past.”

With quarantine coupled with broader travel restrictions implemented around the world, travel to Hawaii was drastically affected. Statistics showed that “on March 1, nearly 29,000 people arrived but that figure, on March 31, it dropped to 301, a fall of 98.9% compared to the same period last year. At least 150,000 workers in the state of 1.5 million people were out of work in May. The unemployment rate was 23.5% – over 10% higher than the national rate.”

In a Wall Street Journal article written by Kim Mackrael titled “Coronavirus Hits Hawaii’s Tourism-Dependent Workforce Hard,” as travel shutdown leaves the state with the highest rate of jobless claims in the U.S. The state’s $18 billion tourism industry ground to a near-halt in March, after the Trump administration recommended Americans to “avoid unnecessary travel.”

Hawaii Chamber of Commerce mentioned that many of its members were already closing temporarily or reducing business hours before the state’s March 25 stay-at-home order. A recent survey by the Chamber and the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found that “about one in four businesses anticipated having to shut their doors permanently,” said Menor-McNamara.

“They’re bleeding,” Menor-McNamara said. “As you can imagine, there’s only so much cash in the bank account. Their fixed costs are far exceeding what they have.”

Reports said Kyle Baxter, a 55-year-old server at the Beachhouse Restaurant at the Moana Surfrider Hotel in Honolulu, was laid off temporarily on March 17. He said “he considered moving back to New York, where he has lived in the past, but figured the cost of shipping or selling his belongings would be too high. I have a little bit of savings, and this is probably going to wipe it out.”

Statistics indicated that more than 10 million people traveled to Hawaii last year, generating $2 billion in state tax revenue, according to the state tourism authority. Leisure and hospitality, including food service, account for 19% of all employment on the islands.

Douglass Miller, a lecturer at the Hotel School at Cornell University said: “Hawaii is hospitality… and it’s more than just the hotels and restaurants being shut down. There’s a whole trickle-down effect.”

Don Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Bar & Grill in the Honolulu financial district, said he cut his staff by about two-thirds after his restaurant was forced to move to takeout service only. Just days earlier, he had canceled the pub’s annual St. Patrick’s Day block party, which usually brings in about a month’s worth of business in a single day. The pandemic really affected the tourism industry the most!

The Hotel Business Sept. 15,  2020 edition magazine reported that: “Travel supports 15.8 million American jobs in total, employing 1 out of 10 Americans. 2019 travel generated $2.6 trillion for the US economy. The local impact is 70 percent to local communities (in traveler related spending) in transportation, food and beverage (retail), The failure of our (National) hotels can (and will) have a massive ripple effect on our country’s economy.”

In an interview, Benjie Fernandez, hotel manager of Hilton Garden Inn in the Bay Area said: “Since the COVID-19 pandemic hits the travel industry, the hotel suffered the most as travelers no longer spend the night or two to attend meetings and conferences. Most of the hotels, if not all, closed their operations temporarily resulting to furloughing their employees and later got laid off permanently.”

Fernandez further said: “My very own hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, furloughed 90% of our workforce as the hotel run only a single-digit occupancy for the first 5 months during COVID-19.  Because of this, we had no choice but to let all our hourly employees go in the promise that they will be called when the business gets back to normal.  As a result, they lost their insurance coverages as hotel operators can no longer sustain or continue their coverages after the 90-day period,” he added. “Personally,” he continued, “it will take a while to recover as many businesses working at home. Not even next year, I would say in 2022 or 2023.”

As I observed the latest development in Hawaii and other states with many states still surging positive of the virus, Fernandez’s observation is true! The pandemic is still with us and is not moving away, contrary to U.S. President Donald Trump’s view. There is no indication that it will fade away soon or “making a turn!”

ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author at

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