Pandemic gave locals fleeting taste of a tourist-free Hawaii

“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.

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 bring 11 million visitors a year, didn’t work and people were tired of it.”

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 of Honolulu took up standup paddle-boarding 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 some 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.”

Even with the option to produce a negative test, some travelers choose to quarantine for two weeks, whether at hotels, rentals or at home. Hawaii authorities have arrested some people for violating quarantine.

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 on 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.”