Early last week Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi announced Japan’s safe international travel program to 12 destinations, including China, South Korea, Mongolia and several European countries. The state of Hawai’i is the only state in the United States under consideration for the program. There has been no timetable set for when the new Japan-Hawai‘i Safe Travel program will go into effect but it will be tightly regulated to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Japan and Hawai’i enjoy longstanding cultural ties and deep-rooted friendship that has enriched the lives of many generations. Japanese Americans make up 22.1% of the state population and Japanese students make up 27.3% of the international student body in Hawai‘i, considerably higher than the nationwide rate of 1.7%. Furthermore, Hawai‘i and Japan share 25 sister partnerships, highlighted by Honolulu, whose 7 sister cities in Japan are the most of any city in the United States.
Hawai’i Governor Ige has announced that the safe travel program with Japan will be a big step forward in reviving the overall economic health of Hawai’i and its people, as there are tens of thousands of residents who depend on the travel industry for their livelihoods. As the travel industry was hit hard by the pandemic, Hawai’i has reached a record-high 39.4% of the workforce unemployed.
According to the Hawai'i Tourism Authority, visitors to the Hawaiian Islands spent $17.75 billion generating $2.07 billion in state tax revenue in 2019. 216,000 jobs statewide were supported by Hawaii’s tourism industry in 2019 and total exports to Japan were $475M. Top exports included passenger fares, travel, ocean freight and port services, airfreight and port services, and petroleum and coal products. From the exports to Japan, there were total 2,998 jobs supported in Hawai’i with total of $286M in Japanese visitor spending in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted visitor arrivals to the Hawaiian Islands starting March of 2020. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, visitor arrivals were down 98.2% compared to a year ago in June, as all passengers arriving from out-of-state during June were required to abide by the 14-day self-quarantine rule. Compared to last year, visitor arrivals from Japan by air service decreased by 59.9% from 734,247 to 294,295. Given the significance of Japanese tourists to Hawai’i, the Japan-Hawai’i Safe Travels program could serve as an effective start and pilot in the gradual opening of Hawaiian tourism and restoring the economy.
Khaliun Ganbaatar is a research intern in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa pursuing Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree.