Pre-Travel Testing and Hawaii’s Daily Trans-Pacific Visitors

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By James Mak and Carl Bonham

The front page headline on Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s October 16 issue read: SOLID REOPENING DAY. Indeed, it was. On October 15, 2020 8,224 trans-Pacific passengers flew into Hawaii compared to an average daily passenger count of only 1,923 passengers the week before. The spike in passenger arrivals is attributed to the start of Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program that exempts travelers from 14-day quarantine upon arrival if they test “negative” for the COVID-19 virus within 72-hours of their final leg of departure. (U.S. military personnel traveling on official orders and “essential workers” were already exempt from the 14-day quarantine before the pre-travel testing program went into effect.) It is a measured step to reopen the Aloha state to trans-Pacific tourism after tourist travel was essentially shut down at the end of March due to the pandemic. About 80% of the arriving trans-Pacific passengers on October 15 had their negative test results in hand when they arrived.

The Star-Advertiser article didn’t report the number of tourists who came to Hawaii on that auspicious day. That is because the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) does not estimate how many of the 8,224 passengers were tourists—the preferred term at HTA is “visitors.” HTA provides estimates of monthly, but not daily, visitor arrivals. We suggest using the daily trans-Pacific passenger arrival data to estimate the number of deplaning visitor in Hawaii each day, thus providing higher frequency visitor data than HTA’s monthly estimates. Higher frequency data provides a more detailed picture of how tourist travel responds to policy changes that affect travel.

Hawaii’s current daily trans-Pacific passenger arrivals data is derived from data provided by the Safe Travels Hawaii program (State Office of Enterprise Technology Services) that was launched on September 1, 2020. Safe Travels Hawaii collects health and passenger information digitally and is mandatory for all travelers entering Hawaii. A friend whose wife returned to Hawaii from New Jersey on October 15 explained that each arriving passenger was processed by State workers. The airline deplaned passengers starting at the front of the cabin. Tables were set up right outside the gate so each passenger had to have his/her documentation checked there.

Freelance journalist Erick Bengel, on assignment for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, described his experience in navigating through Hawaii’ strict entry protocols when he arrived in Honolulu on United Airlines from Portland (Oregon) via San Francisco on October 15:

Upon debarking, the people planning to stay on the island formed
a line that snaked through the terminal and were screened by
employees of Roberts Hawaii and the state Department of Transportation…
Law enforcement officers watched the action from the sidelines. The
big line broke into separate lines for people who didn’t have their QR code,
those who had their code but no COVID test results or proof of them, and
those like me, had both their code and their test.

In sum, every deplaning trans-Pacific air passenger was screened and accounted for in the arrivals data.

On October 15, the total trans-Pacific passenger count was 8,224 arrivals; 7,378 excluding 502 airline crew members and 344 in-transit passengers (who are not considered visitors). Safe Travels Hawaii allocates the 7,378 passengers according to 14 different travel purposes shown in the table below for October 15, 2020. The challenge is to extract the number of visitors from passenger counts in these 14 travel categories.

Reason for Trip by Trans-Pacific Passengers on October 15
Airline Crew502
Corporate Meeting2
Essential Worker149
Honeymoon47
Incentive Trip1
Intended Resident296
Military or Federal Government197
Other137
Other Business418
Pleasure/Vacation3,194
Returning Resident1,287
Sports Event4
To Attend School13
To Get Married27
Transit344
Visiting Friends or Relatives1,606
GRAND TOTAL8,422
Source: Office of Enterprise Technical Services Safe Travels Program via Hawaii Tourism Authority

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “Tourism comprises the activities of persons traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes.” [1] The UNWTO definition provides only general guidance in determining who is a tourist. The devil is in the details. Are students, military/federal passengers and essential workers tourists? According to the HTA 2019 Annual Visitor Research Report (p. 172), students and military personnel often describe themselves as “intended residents” who intend to live in Hawaii for at least one year. The category of “essential workers” was created primarily to describe those who are brought here to mitigate temporary manpower shortages in health care and other critical services due to the pandemic. If we assume all students and military/federal passengers are “intended residents” (and not visitors) and all “essential workers” are visitors (their numbers are small), then the number of trans-Pacific deplaning visitors in Hawaii on October 15 totaled 5,585, compared to 698 the day before. [2] Visitors comprised 76% of all arriving passengers on that day (excluding airline crew and in-transit passengers) compared to 48% the day before. Seventy-two percent of the 1,793 non-tourist arriving passengers were returning residents. [3]

We have used the same method to estimate daily trans-Pacific deplaning visitors beginning on September 1 when the Safe Travels data program was launched. The daily deplaning visitor data are displayed in the following chart. The data can also be found on the UHERO data portal.

Daily Visitors and Passengers Arriving in Hawaii
Passenger arrivals do not include flight crew and in-transit passengers

The charts show, not surprisingly, that changes in daily deplaning visitors follow very closely changes in total daily passenger arrivals. After an initial 3-day spike in trans-Pacific visitors following the implementation of pre-travel testing on October 15, visitor numbers declined fairly quickly. In the first seven days beginning on October 15, more than 31,000 visitors came to Hawaii; in the next 7 days, the number fell to less than 24,000. The front-page headline on Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s October 30 issue read: TOURISM NOT TAKING FLIGHT. The initial exuberance over prospects of tourism’s strong return has been replaced by sobering realization that the State government’s pre-travel testing protocol alone will not bring visitors back quickly and in large numbers.

Finally, it is interesting to compare HTA’s estimates of monthly visitor arrivals in Hawaii with the numbers calculated as described here. For the month of September, HTA (using different data) estimates 18,868 trans-Pacific visitors arrived in Hawaii. Summing the estimated daily deplaning visitors using data from the Safe Travels Hawaii program, yields an estimate of 21,514. September is only one month, but we are inclined to believe that the Safe Travels Hawaii data collection program provides more precise estimates of visitor arrivals. It will be interesting to compare the two sets of estimates in coming months. For now, it is possible to have estimates of high frequency visitor data in a timely manner.


[1] World Tourism Organization (WTO), Recommendations on Tourism Statistics, 1993, p. 1; also James Mak, Tourism and the Economy: Understanding the Economics of Tourism, University of Hawaii Press, 2004, p. 3.

[2] The formula to calculate visitor arrivals is as follows: # of deplaning visitors = # total passenger arrivals (Grand Total in the table) – # of airline crew – # of in-transit passengers – # of intended residents – # of military/federal workers – # of returning residents – # of students.

[3] Returning residents averaged 1,030 per day between October 15 and October 31 compared to an average of 594 per day between October 1 and October 14. The option to pre-travel test and bypass quarantine upon returning to Hawaii may also have spurred residents to travel.

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