Planning a Maui trip during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here’s what to expect if you’ll be visiting Maui during the COVID era. This story has been updated.
Is Maui Open to Visitors?
YES! Maui’s tourism industry closed in late March 2020 when the Hawaiian islands went into lockdown to curb the virus. At that time, the state of Hawaii asked visitors not to come to the islands and instituted a mandatory quarantine for anyone arriving into Hawaii. The mandatory quarantine was initially set to 14-days in October 2020, then 10-days in December 2020, and finally 5-days in January 2022.
UPDATE: Now, 2 years later, effective March 26, 2022, the travel quarantine and the Safe Travels Hawaii program has ended! U.S. visitors no longer need to show proof of vaccination or provide a negative COVID test to surpass the quarantine, because there is no mandatory quarantine! Hawaii residents traveling inter-island also do not need to show proof of vaccination or negative test.
FOR INTERNATIONAL TRAVELERS: Currently non-U.S. citizens are NOT required to be vaccinated, show proof of negative test, or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 to enter the United States. Check the CDC’s website for the latest federal requirements for travelers coming to Hawaii from an international destination.
Is There Still a Quarantine Requirement?
Gov. David Ige announced that the state is ending the travel quarantine and the Safe Travels Hawaii program after the current emergency period ends on Mar. 25. Beginning at 12:01 am, Mar. 26, passengers arriving from domestic points of origin will not have to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a pre-travel negative test result. Incoming passengers will also no longer be required to create a Safe Travels account or provide travelers information and trip details. Travelers arriving in the State of Hawaii now through Mar. 25, are still subject to Safe Travels requirements.
International passengers will continue to follow the requirements that were put in place by the federal government.
In addition, beginning on Mar. 26, state/county employees and visitors to state facilities will no longer be required to provide vaccination status or negative COVID test results.”
Because our state does not have the authority to shut down air traffic into Hawaii, the quarantine was initially introduced in 2020 with the intention of discouraging visitors from coming. In truth, we really did not want tourists coming here to quarantine, and we did not encourage it. And why would anyone want to do that, anyway? The quarantine was very restrictive, limiting the choice of places you can stay and requiring that travelers stay INSIDE their hotel room for the entire quarantine period. Quarantined travelers were not allowed to rent a car, go grocery shopping, go to the beach or hotel pool or do anything outside of their room, except in the case of medical emergency. The quarantine was strictly enforced, with hefty fines and/or imprisonment for those who violated the laws.
Why Was Hawaii Being So Strict?
As a remote island state, we are unique in our concerns, needs, and approach to COVID-19. We have limited medical resources here. The island of Maui, for instance, has just one acute-care hospital and only 31 ICU beds. Unlike other places, we don’t have the option to drive to a nearby city for additional medical care.
Our island borders have made it possible for us to contain and control the virus extremely well, but those borders also place us in a position of tremendous risk if the virus takes hold and spreads like wildfire across the island. There is literally nowhere to run. It could quickly overwhelm our health care system.
This pandemic put our island communities in the impossible position of having to choose between public safety or a healthy economy. What is the right direction to take? There is no perfect solution, and every choice involves risk and controversy. Our local government officials have been criticized for (a) waiting too long to reopen the tourism industry and (b) reopening the tourism industry too soon. There is no right answer that everyone can agree upon.
As much as we in Hawaii might like to keep our doors closed and stay safe here forever in a little cocoon in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that is simply not realistic and would be disastrous for our tourism-based economy. By the time we reopened to visitors in mid-October 2020, Hawaii’s tourism industry had been closed for nearly seven months. It was catastrophic. Our leaders decided we cannot just sit back and wait this out. We must learn to co-exist with COVID and cautiously reopen our state to visitors.
Will Everything Be Open for You to Enjoy?
Well, maybe not everything . . . but most things. All beaches and parks are open. Most natural attractions (like Haleakala National Park) and hiking trails are open. Most shops, restaurants, and activities have reopened. A few have closed permanently.
The pandemic has taken its toll on Hawaii’s tourism industry and has been extremely challenging for local businesses. Most have been barely hanging on, waiting for tourism to rebound, and they are now delighted to welcome you back. It’s inevitable, however, that some businesses will not survive this crisis and will decide to close their doors for good. We—along with you—are just waiting to see which businesses are able to recover and survive.
What Has Changed in Maui?
If this a return trip and you are visiting Maui during COVID, you will notice that some things have changed on the island since your last trip.
THE UPSIDE: For our natural environment, the seven-month tourism shutdown was like a much-needed vacation and time of renewal. Our beaches and ocean are clean and beautiful. Fish have come back in abundance. Wildlife is flourishing. Flowers are blooming. Sunsets are gorgeous, as always. The environment has refreshed itself. Maui is more beautiful than ever.
Even Maui’s physical infrastructure has undergone some transformation. Several stretches of roadway have been repaved and improved, and many businesses and accommodations used the forced down-time to renovate and touch things up. And ALL of them have done thorough deep cleaning! You’ll find that everything is clean and ready for you — more so than ever before.
THE DOWNSIDE: Your visit may not be as carefree as before. As long as COVID is still active in the world, our island community will be focused on protecting ourselves and our visitors. Many businesses are still very short staffed due to the impacts of the pandemic along with many locals moving away. You can expect long lines for restaurants and services. I recommend making reservations for dining and activities well in advance. We are also still struggling to get supplies and goods shipped over (as many places are), but being an island, it is taking even longer.
Do ‘Locals’ Want Tourists Back?
After a seven-month closure, we were very excited to start welcoming tourists back beginning October 2020! But, to be perfectly honest, we had also been nervous about it. We are trusting our visitors to be respectful and follow the rules to protect our community, because if Maui experiences a large spike in the virus we may have to close down again . . . and that would be devastating. So, we have opened our home to visitors with some mixed emotions. Excitement and anticipation, yes—but concern and uncertainty, too.
You might run into a few Maui residents who are not welcoming towards you, although I certainly hope that doesn’t happen. If it does, ignore them. You’ll find plenty of Aloha from the rest of us. There are several complex factors at play when it comes to the attitude of local residents towards tourists: Some people here are consumed by fear that visitors will infect our island and kill us all. Also, the recent massive resurgence in tourism numbers has been unexpected and rather shocking to those of us who live here and got used to having the highways and beaches to ourselves for seven months! We expected tourism to rebuild slowly, and our island is now having to rapidly readjust to the huge numbers of tourists that have been arriving since March 2021. With the pent-up demand for travel bringing so many visitors to Hawaii, we are have hit pre-COVID tourist numbers on Maui, and that has put pressure on our infrastructure (see more on that in the next section).
On top of all that, there has always been a minority segment of the population in Hawaii that does not want tourists here at all. Those people became empowered and more vocal on social media during the COVID-19 tourism shutdown, and they are even more vocal now that tourism has rebounded so quickly. But they don’t speak for the majority. The reality is, Hawaii will always need the tourism industry, and the vast majority of us who live here greatly appreciate our visitors. We are glad you’re here, and we will make you feel welcome.
Will Maui Be the Same After COVID is Gone?
Honestly? We hope not! Those of us who live here don’t want it to be exactly the way it was before. In recent years, the volume of tourists in Hawaii reached record-breaking numbers, and that negatively impacted residents, as well as the visitors’ experience. Maui is a small island with a population of around 165,000 residents. In recent years pre-COVID, we were welcoming nearly 3 million visitors a year to our little island. Every month, 200,000-300,00 visitors arrived on Maui. (And we are already nearing those numbers again.)
We value our visitors — they keep our economy strong and healthy, and it’s a pleasure to see people enjoying the beauty of Maui. But as the numbers have grown in past years, we have seen tourism overrun our communities and infrastructure. The beaches and roadways were more crowded than ever. There was more strain on the infrastructure, creating more challenges for those of us who live here—and many residents began to resent that. The seams of our island community were stretched to the breaking point. Visitors complained because things were too crowded and “not like they used to be.” Residents complained because our lives were more impacted by the growing visitor numbers and yes, things were too crowded and “not like they used to be.” So everyone seemed to agree: Hawaii needs to manage tourism differently so it’s a more positive experience for both residents and visitors, as well as our natural environment.
For the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion on this topic of overtourism in Hawaii, and COVID has provided us with an unexpected opportunity. During these months of closure, Hawaii’s tourism industry leaders have had a chance to step back, talk, plan and consider ways to “do it differently” when we reopen. Yes, we want to welcome our visitors back again! But Hawaii will be taking a more balanced approach to tourism in coming months and years. We will not be pushing for the massive uncontrolled numbers of tourists we had before and will be more mindful of the impacts of tourism. This doesn’t mean we don’t want tourists. It just means we want to manage the volume better, for everyone’s sake.
In the future, Hawaii’s tourism industry will focus more on providing visitors with an authentic, unique experience that is rooted in native culture and traditions, rather than outdated Hawaii stereotypes. There are many beautiful beach destinations on this planet, but our authentic culture and aloha spirit is what sets Hawaii apart from the rest of the world. We want to do a better job of sharing that. And in doing so, we hope to draw respectful visitors, those who want to experience Hawaii on a deeper level, connect with our community, respect our culture, and help us preserve our fragile environment. The Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau says it this way: “We want visitors who will leave Hawaii better than when they arrived. People who will be enriched by their visit.” You will see changes in Maui’s tourism industry in coming years, and hopefully that will make your experience even better than before.
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