Japanese travelers could serve as a lifeline for struggling tourism businesses abroad after the state of Hawaii announced last week it would loosen entry restrictions for visitors from Japan.
Beginning Oct. 15, travelers from the continental United States and passengers flying from Honolulu, Kauai and Maui counties can bypass Hawaii’s 14-day quarantine if they pass a body temperature test upon landing and submit a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of arrival.
But the plan for Japanese travelers has stalled as Hawaii waits on Japan’s central government to put forward a list of designated facilities where they can take the test and submit results. It’s not yet clear when that announcement will be made.
Hawaii state officials have also made clear that Japanese travelers will be subject to two weeks of quarantine after returning to Japan, and that leisure travel to Japan is still blocked for Americans.
Until now, travelers entering Hawaii had been required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. State officials say the situation on the island has improved.
“We recognize that it’s an important market for us,” Hawaii Gov. David Ige told local television broadcaster KHON2. “You know, Japanese visitors are always respectful.”
Last year more Japanese travelers flew to the island — and spent more money during their trip — than nationals from anywhere else besides other U.S. states, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Easing entry restrictions for foreign nationals is the latest effort to reopen the island and revive its starving tourism industry.
However, locals have raised concerns that inviting travelers from abroad could trigger another outbreak of COVID-19, pointing out that a surge in new infections could overwhelm the island’s limited health care system.
As of Monday, the state of Hawaii had reported more than 14,000 infections and 187 deaths. As of Tuesday, Japan has reported nationwide more than 93,000 cases and 1,672 deaths.
More than 8,000 passengers landed in Hawaii the day after the plan took effect last week, according to state officials, a number that Gov. Ige said was “significantly more than expected.”
While there were some issues with the plan’s initial rollout — overlapping flight arrivals caused a backup at the airport, and many passengers weren’t able to submit their test results online and brought hard copies instead, according to local media reports — officials said they were working to fix those issues, and remain adamant the island is prepared to handle more cases.
Ige said he hopes to welcome Japanese travelers to the island by the end of the year.
Japan’s tourism industry is also struggling. Restrictions remain in effect for travelers from 159 countries and regions, causing a struggle for local businesses in rural parts of the country heavily reliant on inbound tourism.
In July the central government introduced the Go To Travel campaign, a ¥1.35 trillion program meant to revive domestic tourism by providing discounts on hotel reservations and other travel expenses.
There is concern, however, that such programs are only buying time and that the industry can’t truly begin to recover until border restrictions are lifted, an unnerving but inevitable step that would subject the country to the risk of importing the virus.
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