How Many Visitors Are Coming to Hawaii During this Pandemic? Making Sense of Hawaii’s Visitor Arrival Data

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By James Mak

To curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Hawaii imposed a 14-day travel quarantine requirement for trans-Pacific passengers arriving in Hawaii; the new rule went into effect on March 26.  Some visitors are still arriving in Hawaii, apparently in increasing numbers. How many manage to come to Hawaii is unclear to me as I’ve been thoroughly confused by the Hawaii visitor arrival data that I’ve been looking at recently.    

On March 27 the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) began to issue  daily information on the number of air passenger arrivals in Hawaii the previous day, breaking the data down into returning residents, intended residents, visitors and so on.  An abbreviated summary of this information is reported almost daily by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.  I’ve been following those numbers as well.  

On August 27, HTA released its monthly tourism data for July, 2020. It said, 22,562 visitors arrived in Hawaii by air in the month of July.  I figured that if I tallied all the visitor numbers in the daily news releases, I would get the same monthly number.  Out of curiosity, I summed the daily HTA reported visitor numbers for July.  It came out to 18,133.  That’s a discrepancy of 4,420 visitors, or nearly 20% fewer visitors.  For June, the sum of the daily visitor numbers were 19% less than what was reported in the monthly report.  

Many locals might prefer the visitor numbers to be “0” right now, but that’s not the point.  A lot of people—consultants, planners, economists, marketing professionals, and academics– make a living using HTA tourism numbers.  Important public and private policy decisions are made depending on how many visitors come to Hawaii.  If the lower number is correct, it means that visitor spending in June would be correspondingly lower. (Actually, HTA stopped surveying visitor spending beginning in May.)  So, what’s the explanation?

I initially thought that it might be the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) new Mandatory Travel Declaration (MTD) form. Since mid-May, the State began to use this new survey form to collect arriving passenger data to ascertain how many trans-Pacific passengers are required to abide by and how many are exempt from the State’s 14-day travel quarantine requirement.  Military personnel traveling under official orders and other workers engaged in “essential travel for critical infrastructure” are exempt from the 14- day quarantine.  (In late May, military dependents were also exempted from the 14-day quarantine but the exemption was rescinded in early August.)  

On May 17 HTA’s daily news release began posting data on passenger arrivals on the previous day (May 16) using information extracted from the new DOT form.  Previously, HTA posted visitor numbers estimated from information contained in the mandatory agricultural declaration form (Ag form); the backside of the form also asks visitors and intended and returning residents to provide detailed personal/travel party and trip information (voluntarily). A comparison of the visitor arrivals data for May 15 ( derived from the Ag form) and May 16 (new DOT declaration form) finds the following differences in passenger categories (Table 1):

Flight crewIntended residents Returning residents In transitMilitary (Other) ExemptVisitors Total
May 15 (Ag form)143131333103286996
May 16 (New DOT form)122119307805820285991

  (Note:  In the DOT form “intended residents” are people “relocating to Hawaii.” In transit passengers are on their way to other destinations and not considered visitors.) 

Before the DOT form came into use, the newly exempt military and non-military travelers were included in other passenger categories—most likely as “intended residents” or “visitors”.  Reallocating them to the newly created exempt categories resulted in the under-reporting of daily visitor numbers. This problem can easily be corrected.  The DOT mandatory travel declaration form allows us to get the total counts of visitors vs intended residents vs returning residents. After those counts are tabulated, a separate tally of how many of these passengers are exempt from quarantine can be made.  

It turns out the DOT mandatory declaration form is not to blame for the substantial under reporting of visitor arrivals.  In April, HTA reported 4,564 visitors traveled to Hawaii by air. That was before the DOT mandatory declaration form came into used.  I added up the number of daily visitor arrivals for the month of April as reported in the HTA daily news releases, and it summed to 3,863–701 visitors (or 15%) less than the number reported in the HTA monthly tourism report for April.  

If it is not the DOT declaration form, what is it?   I emailed Dr. Eugene Tian (Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Research and Economic Analysis Division) and Jennifer Chun (HTA Director of Tourism Research) for explanation.  Both were extremely helpful.  According to Tian, HTA’s daily passenger report is derived from the Ag form before May 16 and the DOT Mandatory Declaration form since May 16.  For the monthly reports, he describes the process as follows:  “All the airlines report their monthly passenger numbers to HTA every month by the 10th;  HTA combines the numbers from all the airlines to come up with the total passenger numbers and uses those numbers as the control total, then allocates the total into passenger categories (returning residents, intended residents, and visitors) based on the in-flight surveys (Ag. form).”  In a nutshell,  the daily and monthly visitor reports rely on different sources of information. (Moreover, the daily visitor numbers are “preliminary” estimates, though HTA doesn’t finalize those estimates.)   Chun says that we can use the visitor numbers in the daily news releases to see if visitor numbers are going up or going down, but we shouldn’t add up the visitor numbers in the daily press releases to get the monthly total. 

Now I know.  Alas, those who are unhappy about the rising number of visitors coming to Hawaii lately will be even more chagrined if they knew that the visitor numbers they read in the newspaper every day understate the actual numbers…by a lot!

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4 thoughts on “How Many Visitors Are Coming to Hawaii During this Pandemic? Making Sense of Hawaii’s Visitor Arrival Data”

  1. Nice article. Glad someone looked at this.

    I wondered if visitors who are renting their accommodations through a peer-to-peer service might claim returning or intended resident status.

  2. The airlines only require 1 ag form per family. If the family consists of husband, wife and 2 children arrive only 1 ag form is turned in although 4 people arrived. I don’t think
    the ag form asks for the number of additional travelers covered by the form. That may explain some of the differences between the DOT and HTA figures.

    Very informative article.

    Douglas

  3. Residents are in enforced lockdown and yet they still allow visitors to show up in growing numbers without an adequate levels of tracking, testing and quarantine. It’s time to step up our game against COVID.
    Auwe

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