Big Island of Hawaii Travel During COVID-19

As 2019 drew to a close, I told myself that 2020 would be the year that I started doing serious travel again. I booked a trip to Australia and Tasmania for February and March and was actively looking for other island destinations to visit over the course of the year. Some ideas were Cuba, Iceland, Bali, New Zealand – but as we all know – the pandemic came and the world changed. Things were starting to look iffy in February but I opted to take my trip to Australia and Tasmania because there were only single digit cases in Hawaii or Australia at that point. I’m very glad I took the trip.

When I got home, things got more serious with the virus, in fact, it looked like the world was going to crash. My daughter started Spring Break and we were pretty sure she wouldn’t be going back to school in 2020. That’s most likely how it played out. We went into lockdown mode from March through June in our little Honolulu apartment – and after months of the three of us in there – we were feeling stir crazy. When Hawaii opened up the beaches, we began to take some cautious trips to our favorite places. When restaurants re-opened with new limitations in place – we visited two of our favorites Cholos in Haleiwa and Nico’s Pier 38 – granted both experiences were nerve inducing and weird with servers and cooks wearing masks and strange new policies (please wait in your car, we’ll phone you when your table is ready!)

In mid-June when the state dropped the mandatory 14-day quarantine for travel between islands, we decided it was time for a scenery change. We booked a cottage for the 4th of July weekend on the Big Island of Hawaii, rented a car, and booked our flights. Vacation rentals on Oahu are still closed down but on the Big Island they have been open for a while.

The first part of the trip was the most stress inducing – we took a Lyft from our apartment to the airport. We wore our masks and the driver wore his mask – but it was still a bit freaky to be in a strangers car and not know who else had been in it. It was a ten minute ride. At the airport we filled out all the new forms, had our temperatures taken, and waited the appropriate distance behind all the other brave (or foolish) people taking a chance at travel. We sat and kept social distance before boarding the plane – onboard were around 114 people – and socially distancing on a plane is not really an option at all.

Arriving in Hilo, we traversed the airport and waited in another manicured line to pick up our rental car – which had a note inside that said it had been professionally sterilized by Daryl.

We drove to our remote and isolated vacation rental – one of a group of cottages in the country. Only one of the other cottages was occupied – by a young family of Ukranian Yoga instructors who had come from the mainland and had quarantined for 12 days so far. I appreciated the fact that they were honoring the local regulation to self-quarantine for the full 14 days. We said hello – from a distance and relaxed to the sound of coqui frogs and distant views of the Pacific Ocean.

Travel during a pandemic is strange to begin with but when you arrive at your destination, you realize that everything is different. Tours and attractions are shut down. Restaurants are mostly open for take out only and only for very specific hours. As we drove through towns that I remembered as being bustling little places, the empty shops and boarded up restaurants bear stark witness to the cost of this pandemic in terms of small businesses here. Those that relied on tourism are either in trouble or gone. Towns that seemed decrepit with agricultural businesses barely hanging on now show far more life than those that bustled with tourists before.

The attempts to survive and create a safe environment are many. People haven’t given up – but the struggle is real. We met up with a friend and visited an empty National Park with him one day – he had quarantined and we had been exposed to the world – but we opted to take our chances – a calculated risk to enjoy some camaraderie with an old friend. Friendship and hanging out being another one of those things we used to take for granted….

Driving through the empty resort towns and seeing the closed luxury resorts and timeshares, visiting once packed beaches, and enjoying the blissful lack of mainland and international tourists…those have been the highlights. Tourists are starting to show up here – we locals all recognize them driving in their rented jeeps and mustangs – living their island fantasy – that is mostly not the way that anyone actually lives here (the jeeps and mustangs are almost all tourist or military vehicles – definitely not locals).

The locals I’ve met here – they don’t miss the tourists. They don’t miss the tourism industry. They don’t miss the busloads of tourists at every scenic stop, beach, or historic point of interest. I don’t miss them either. In fact, this aspect of things will probably be fondly remembered by all of us who live here – this ability to enjoy this place we sacrifice to live without being crowded out by people who sacrifice to visit.

The tourists are coming back though – the jeeps and mustangs are increasing in number. The floodgates will open in August when the state will allow people to come as long as they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 within 3 days of their flight. I’m afraid of what that will mean – in terms of people bringing more cases of the virus to us, in terms of the roads getting crowded again with tour buses, tour vans, jeeps, and mustangs, and in terms of losing this ability to have space, to enjoy Hawaii, and to feel even a little bit secure in going out to eat, swim, or play.

This trip has been wonderful. Completely different, but completely wonderful. So much so, that we’ve booked another trip back in a couple of weeks – before the tourism floodgates open again and hide the amazing beauty of this place beneath the crass and disgusting capitalism of mass tourism.

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