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Hawaiʻi Has Been Without Tourists for Seven Months. It’s Been Strange.

Slate logo Slate 10/23/2020 Michelle Broder Van Dyke
a man riding on top of a sandy beach next to a palm tree: Waikiki Beach in Honolulu on July 26. Ronen Zilberman/AFP via Getty Images © Provided by Slate Waikiki Beach in Honolulu on July 26. Ronen Zilberman/AFP via Getty Images

One day in March, I left my house to pick up preordered groceries, driving down Kalākaua Avenue—the main thoroughfare of Waikīkī. This is the epicenter of tourism in Honolulu, where the extra-wide sidewalks are lined with swaying palm trees and usually packed with window-shopping, beach-ready visitors. But on this Saturday the grand avenue was nearly empty. Hawaiʻi’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travelers and Oʻahu’s stay-at-home order had just started that week. Of the two dozen or so people still there, at least half of them were walking with a surfboard tucked under an arm. I breezed through the usually congested drive in two minutes.

For a place known for its traffic and crowds, this was the first of many shocks. Hawaiʻi’s self-quarantine policy stayed in place for seven months—effectively shutting down tourism. This ended on Oct. 15, when the pre-travel testing program started, which allows incoming passengers to bypass the two-week quarantine if they show a negative test result.

On Oʻahu’s North Shore, the sand fluctuates with the seasons, leaving barren, jagged rocks exposed at Ke Iki Beach during the winter, before the sand fills in again. This summer, the nearly empty beach looked massive. It is lined with multimillion-dollar homes, some of which have been used as illegal vacation rentals in recent years. At the beach access, there was a sign saying “don’t litter” with a kitschy tiki-themed mask dangling off of it. On the sand, no one wore a mask—although the mayor said it was required. At the beach, there were fewer people than usual, with photographers, families, fishers, and dog owners spacing themselves out by more than 6 feet. I was cautious about getting too close to people, feeling scared about basically everything since my husband is high-risk. Plus, a small number of visitors were still flying to Hawaiʻi every day, making me paranoid as I tried to guess who might be a tourist breaking quarantine, but there was also a sense of camaraderie knowing that almost everyone was a Hawaiʻi resident.

At the beach, I love letting my dog play with other dogs. It is like watching an elegant dance: the slow approach, the sniff, the let’s-play pounce, and then the full-on frolic. As the dogs play freely, it can be awkward for their humans performing their own extremely distanced dance. At times, I felt an adrenaline rush from briefly interacting with a stranger.

While having no tourists on Oʻahu has felt a little like going back in time, it has been difficult to enjoy the rare solitude. People are sick and dying. Hawaiʻi has some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation—mostly because tourism accounted for a quarter of the economy. I worry about what might happen to my hometown. Hawaiʻi’s infamous high cost of living had already caused population loss over the last three years, as people moved to the mainland for better job opportunities—and now that’s going to accelerate. It didn’t help reading a tactless article in the New York Times about a California family “stuck” at their mother’s empty vacation home in Hawaiʻi, while reading the local news that Pacific Islanders and Filipinos are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and that people are noticing more homeless encampments in Honolulu. Hawaiʻi may look like paradise, but it isn’t always for the people who live here.

What was allowed on Oʻahu during the quarantine period changed several times. I often felt baffled about the rules and fearful of getting a citation or the coronavirus, so I left my neighborhood as little as possible. In mid-April, Gov. David Ige closed all beaches, saying walking, exercising, or sunbathing on the sand was not allowed. However, it is a state law that the public has a right to access the water below the point where the highest wave reaches, and officials said beach parks could be crossed in order to access the ocean. That ostensibly meant that the ocean was open while the beach was closed.

It was a weekday in August when my husband and I went to Kalama Beach Park in Kailua Bay and found almost no one there except for a few bodyboarders. In 1985, the year I was born, nearly 5 million visitors came to the state. Last year, there were more than 10 million visitors. Being at the beach now made me nostalgic for my childhood. Sitting on the sand was banned, so we put our stuff down and ran into the cool water. I was blissed out until I saw a littered surgical mask stuck to a shrub on the shore, making it impossible to forget about the pandemic.

In September, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell reopened the beaches to individuals—that is, each visitor had to go alone, so parents couldn’t sit with their kids. We were at Shark’s Cove in the early morning on the first day of the rule change, and a man was setting up a canopy tent. He unfolded a beach chair, placed it in the center of his tent, and sat triumphantly in it. His setup stood out, since he was literally the only person on the sand while dozens of people were wading or snorkeling in the pools in front of him. Eventually he got in the water, and a woman, presumably his wife, went and sat in his fort.

Snorkeling at the Pūpūkea Marine Life Conservation District, I could see more fishes and turtles than I had in past summers, and there was no oily sunscreen floating on the surface, which contains chemicals known to kill marine life and coral reefs. My husband pointed to the horizon, where shiny silver specks were shimmering in the sun. “Dolphins?” he asked, and we watched in awe as at least 100 of them jumped through the waves. With fewer people here, it really does feel like “nature is healing.”

There’s a lot of anxiety about the return of the tourists and whether it’s a necessary evil. What will happen if they don’t come back? What will happen if they do? On the first day that tourism reopened with the pre-travel testing program, more than 8,000 people arrived. Last year, the average daily arrival count was 30,000. Some locals are concerned that the pre-travel program is going to let positive COVID-19 cases slip through, especially with rates rising on the mainland and elsewhere. There’s long been talk about diversifying the economy, but the local government seems focused on tourism.

This is the time to set in motion a future that prioritizes people not just visiting Hawaiʻi but living here.


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