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Pandemic gave locals fleeting taste of a tourist-free Hawaii

Bryant de Venecia stands with his paddleboard Nov. 11 in Honolulu. He started stand-up paddleboarding when there were fewer tourists coming to Hawaii during the pandemic. He’s among Hawaii’s residents feeling ambivalence toward tourists returning now that the state is allowing incoming travelers to bypass a 14-day quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test.

HONOLULU – Line-Noue Memea Kruse lives on Oahu’s famed North Shore, where marveling at sea turtles, epic waves and sunsets that paint the sky orange and purple are a must for many tourists in Hawaii.

After the islands required a two-week quarantine for travelers amid the coronavirus pandemic, Kruse rejoiced in the little things as the number of tourists dramatically dropped. It took her 35 minutes to drive to Walmart, instead of spending hours stuck in traffic as tourists gawked at turtles on the beach.

But tourist-reliant Hawaii has now eased the restrictions imposed in March, allowing visitors to produce a negative COVID-19 test to avoid the quarantine.

“I can literally tell you the day that they opened up,” Kruse said. She was driving to Walmart on Oct. 15, when the travel restrictions eased, and “I waited for hours again.”

For seven months, locals had taken back spots normally crowded with visitors. They could enjoy Waikiki’s famous beaches without the sunburned tourists and walk on sidewalks without hordes of visitors awestruck by clear blue water, white sand and the other trappings of a tropical getaway.

People are seen on the beach and in the water in front of the Kahala Hotel & Resort on Nov. 15 in Honolulu. Some locals in the tourism-dependent state have mixed feelings about the return of visitors during the pandemic after enjoying Hawaii’s beaches with dramatically fewer tourists since March.

Locals, many of whom depend on tourism jobs, have long felt ambivalence about living in an island paradise that relies heavily on visitor spending, but many saw an upshot to a health crisis that threatened their livelihoods – reclaiming favorite areas long overrun by crowds.

Before the pandemic, as many as 30,000 visitors arrived a day. That dropped to several thousand after the quarantine mandate.

“What the pandemic did was give us all a moment to pause, a number of months, to rethink everything,” said state Sen. J. Kalani English. “What it proves for us is that old model of tourism, which is, you know, mass, brings 11 million visitors a year, didn’t work and people were tired of it.”

Some residents are worried as cases surge in other parts of the U.S., but Hawaii officials say an “extremely small number” who get tested before traveling are diagnosed after they arrive. On Monday, 10,515 passengers arrived, with nearly 5,300 indicating they were coming for vacation, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said.

For English, who represents rural parts of Maui, fewer tourists allowed him to reconnect to Hamoa Beach, his “playground” as a child near where his family has lived for generations.

“I haven’t been down there for a number of years because, frankly, it was just too crowded,” he said. During the pandemic, “I started going there again like I did when I was very young, to go swim in the morning.”

Bryant de Venecia poses for a photo with his paddleboard in Honolulu. He started stand-up paddleboarding when there were fewer tourists coming to Hawaii during the pandemic.

Bryant de Venecia of Honolulu took up stand-up paddleboarding when beaches were less crowded.

“How I see it is there was some silver lining in this pandemic that over the last few months, locals and especially kanaka were able to reclaim some of the spaces ... we are not able to occupy or even use because of tourism,” he said, using a word for Native Hawaiians.

But as a communications organizer for a union of hotel workers, de Venecia has “messy” feelings: Many members lost paychecks and medical benefits because of a lack of tourists.

Only 300 out of about 9,000 out-of-work members returned to their jobs when Hawaii welcomed back travelers, de Venecia said, making him wonder if tourism will be the lifeblood it once was.

One union member recently went back to work with hesitation. Aina Iglesias, a guest service agent at a Waikiki hotel, said she’s grateful for an income again.

“But it felt really nice for a while to be tourist-free,” she said of the days spent on less-crowded Waikiki beaches with her family. “When tourists are here, it’s packed, there’s traffic.”

Iglesias said she’s nervous about staying safe at work, pointing to guests who have ignored health orders.

“Those who are in quarantine, they go out and they don’t care,” Iglesias said. “And they get mad at us.”

Guests are seen poolside at the Kahala Hotel & Resort in Honolulu on Nov. 15. Some locals have mixed feelings about tourists returning during the pandemic after enjoying a Hawaii with dramatically fewer tourists since March.

John Fielding, an Oahu resident of 35 years, said returning tourists will bring normalcy and economic stability. But he wants them to wear masks, keep their distance and follow other health orders.

“I think it’s time that we start bringing them back,” he said. “But they need to be educated. They need to be aware. And they need to ... have the respect when they come here.”

John Alderete, a virologist who lives on Kauai, said it’s not safe to allow tourists during a pandemic.

“So it is, in my opinion, a fait accompli that we’re basically just bringing the virus here and knowingly, willfully doing so,” he said.

A second test after arrival is required for the Big Island, voluntary for Maui and Kauai, and not required for Oahu, the most populated island.

Many attractions popular with tourists are open, including Pearl Harbor and Iolani Palace. But others are closed, including the Polynesian Cultural Center, Hanauma Bay and the Diamond Head State Monument.

For residents along Oahu’s western Waianae Coast, there’s less concern about the possibility of visitors making them sick and more of a longstanding feeling that tourists are valued over locals, said state Rep. Cedric Asuega Gates.

Seeing tourism come back while many schoolchildren are still learning remotely feels like a “slap in the face,” Gates said.

Jamaica Osorio, assistant professor of Native Hawaiian and Indigenous politics at the University of Hawaii, has been vocal about her disdain for tourists.

“We aren’t your hosts,” she said in widely shared tweet Oct. 15. “Hawaii is still closed. Go home haole,” she wrote, using a Hawaiian word for “foreigner.”

No one should be vacationing during a pandemic, she said in an interview: “This is not a time for travel and exploration.”