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Tourism interests urge Hawaii to adopt vaccine passport plan

Hawaii is gearing up for a new phase in its tourism reopening as officials announced partnerships with a trio of companies working to develop a vaccine passport, which they hope to unveil by summer to ease entry into the Aloha State.

Other destinations, such as Barbados, are starting work on alternate entry guidelines for fully vaccinated travelers. Hawaii, which has the most restrictive entry requirements for visitors in the U.S., appears to be the first state to consider such a plan.

But buoyed by the CDC announcement early this month declaring that it was safe for those fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to travel, state officials said they are working to incorporate a vaccine passport into the existing Safe Travels testing and screening program.

Under Hawaii's current Safe Travels program, everyone over age 5 entering the state, whether or not they have been vaccinated for Covid-19, must present proof of an approved, negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of their departure to receive an exemption from a 10-day quarantine.

Hawaii is working with three companies -- Clear, CommonPass and First Vitals -- to develop a system integrated with the Safe Travels program that would also serve to verify vaccination records.

Once in operation, travelers with proof of vaccination against Covid-19 would be eligible to enter Hawaii without testing or quarantine.

The state hopes to roll out the system first for interisland travel around May 1 and then expand to out-of-state travelers a month or two later.

While Hawaii was working on a vaccine passport system prior to the CDC announcement, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the new federal guidance provides more momentum to expand Safe Travels to include vaccinated travelers.

"It can be a game-changer for Hawaii," Green said. "We've already seen a large uptick in travel numbers. We have the [lowest] Covid-19 infection rates in the country, and I think a lot of people are deciding it's time for a trip to Hawaii.

"A vaccine passport program will have an enormous impact, and I'm pushing the governor and team hard to accept the program. We need to have this in place before summer travel so it's all buttoned up for everyone interested in coming."

Hawaii visitor arrival numbers have been increasing since January, but daily arrivals are still roughly half of what they were pre-pandemic.

The hospitality and tourism industry quickly picked up on the new CDC guidance and is publicly urging the state to get its vaccine passport up and running.

"I have been pushing for a vaccination passport for quite some time," said Mufi Hannemann, CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. "The CDC's latest position provides a lot of impetus to our desire to bolster increased travel to Hawaii safely."

Hawaiian Airlines is advocating for the removal of testing and quarantine restrictions for interisland travel, a spokesperson for the carrier said, and the company also supports a "common-sense and risk-based approach" for exempting vaccinated people from the quarantine.

With Hawaii reporting the lowest rate of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people among all 50 states, the airline's leadership believes interisland travel can operate safely without restrictions and free up screening resources and personnel for out-of-state travel.

Laura Lukasik, a travel advisor and Hawaii Specialist at Viking Travel outside of Chicago, said she believed Hawaii's progress on entry alternatives this summer could help accelerate a tourism rebound while other destinations, such as Europe, are reimposing restrictions and remain closed to U.S. travelers.

But she said keeping testing options available will be important.

"In the long run, I think making the policies easy to understand and offering variety will be the way to go," Lukasik said. "For some people, being able to go with just their vaccine and not getting tested could motivate them, but I know others simply do not want the vaccine even if it means they can't travel."

Green cautioned that several key issues must be addressed before a vaccine passport could be implemented. Those include protecting users' privacy and how to reliably collect and store vaccination records, which are handled differently from state to state.

"The tech wizards are working on it, and I expect they will be able to crack the code to get this done," Green said. "I don't expect much fraud. The penalties will be very harsh for forging a federal document, and I don't expect many people to make that mistake. Our experience with Safe Travels so far has shown very few people trying to game the system."

Rather than a race to the finish line, the three companies Hawaii has partnered with are expected to work together to find solutions to the trickiest issues and how to integrate the new system with the Safe Travels program.

"We've had 2.2 million travelers since Safe Travels started and restored 50,000 jobs, but it's still an ongoing process," Green said. "The world is not out of Covid risk yet. We continue to vaccinate our residents here, but Hawaii won't reach a herd immunity state until around July 4.

"It's all connected, and we need to continue to be safe. We continue to ask travelers to wear masks and socially distance."

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