Hawaii locals beg tourists to stay home, citing COVID-19 concerns

“When tourism came back, it came back with a vengeance."

Many Hawaii locals have been asking tourists to stop visiting the islands during the pandemic, and the governor is now echoing their calls.

"It is a risky time to be traveling right now," Gov. David Ige said at a press conference on Monday. "We know that the visitors who choose to come to the islands will not have the typical kind of holiday that they expect to get when they visit Hawaii."

The delta variant is ravaging Hawaii, with the state having more confirmed cases than at any point in the pandemic. Averaging more than 700 cases a day, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, roughly 72% of the state's hospital beds are full.

Despite the growing number of cases across the country, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates, tourism is quickly matching pre-pandemic levels. In June 2019, there were 277,930 daily visitors on average, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. In June 2021, that figure was back up to 255,936.

Only about 62% of Hawaii residents are fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins, creating a growing risk for those who remain unvaccinated as tourism ramps back up.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries told ABC News that the visitor experience to the state will not be the same. Restrictions are in place that reduce restaurant capacity, and many events or venues are simply closed.

De Fries added that tourism in Hawaii tends to slow toward the end of the summer anyway. But many residents have said for quite some time that wide-reaching tourism has been a danger to locals.

"During our lockdown in 2020, we were able to see what Hawaii was like without tourists and we realized the adverse impacts that tourism is having on our islands," said Healani Sonoda-Pale, a spokesperson for the local advocacy group Ka Lahui Hawaii. "When tourism came back, it came back with a vengeance."

During the lockdown, Sonoda-Pale and other Hawaiians enjoyed empty beaches, emptier streets, short lines at grocery stores and the comfort of knowing that delicate ecosystems were safer. Tourism was taking a toll on the natural environment and the well-being of locals and native Hawaiians, according to the HTA.

But when the islands began to loosen restrictions during the summer, coronavirus cases began to climb, and endangered animals quickly became playthings for tourists.

The island has had to increase the patrolling of Turtle Beach, where sea turtles were being harassed by hundreds of tourists, and one visitor was fined $500 for touching endangered monk seals, as more videos of tourists posing with the Hawaiian animals has gone.

"They don't come here with any kind of respect or idea of some of the things that they're doing are actually hurting our environment, or hurting our communities and hurting the residents and the Kanaka Maoli people here," Sonoda-Pale said.

However, tourism doesn't seem to be going away any time soon -- it's the largest source of private capital for Hawaii's economy, according to the HTA. But Sonoda-Pale said the pandemic is a perfect time to reimagine the community's relationship to tourism.

Before the pandemic, which highlighted the island's alarming reliance on tourism, De Fries said the HTA has been attempting to make moves toward educating visitors on the culture and the treatment of the land and people.

"Malama means 'to care for, to protect, to nurture,'" said De Fries. "If you care about Hawaii, when you travel here, you must understand the ways in which we Malama. There's a heightened level of visitor awareness and appreciation and sensitivity that we are committed to sharing with the visitor."

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