What could the delta variant mean for Hawaii’s tourism industry?
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Throughout much of the pandemic, the state of Hawaii had the nation’s highest unemployment rate, in large part due to the drop in tourism. Then this summer, as more people got vaccinated, tourism picked up so much that the mayor of Maui requested fewer visitors come to the island. Now, the delta variant is spreading in Hawaii, and the governor has reinstated some indoor capacity restrictions.
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Manu Powers, who co-owns the boat tour company Sea Quest Hawaii with her husband in Kona. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: OK, so let’s see. Here we sit in late-ish August. We spoke nine, eight months ago, back in January. It was grim, I think is safe to say. How was your summer, better, maybe?
Manu Powers: Starkly different, let’s put it that way — bordering on somewhat insane, as a matter of fact. I’m sure that you have all heard the stories of the increased level of tourism in Hawaii. And despite the fact that we were held at 50% [capacity] and understaffed, we were still breaking sales records from February into July. And we are set to have the biggest year we’ve had in our 34-year history. So, minimal staff, minimal capacity, minimal inventory and yet we are blowing our sales records out of the water, pardon the pun.
Ryssdal: Very good. All right, but tell me about this exact moment right now, because things have changed a little bit for y’all in the last six weeks.
Powers: Yeah, tremendously. You know, I’m a business owner, I’m a small business owner. I am supposed to make the best decisions I can with the information I have in front of me to strategically and thoughtfully grow my business. That is now impossible. So we are just kind of waiting it out. It’s been very difficult to go backward, right, to see that light at the end of the tunnel so close, we could reach out and touch it. And then to be hurtled back out through the entrance of the tunnel.
Ryssdal: Those of us who are not business owners, you hear out there amongst the population great expressions of frustration that this is where we are after people have done the vaccine thing and the masking thing, the distancing thing, and now we’re back in a way. Are you frustrated? Are you angry? What are you?
Powers: I’m beyond frustrated, to tell you the truth. We feel a real sense of responsibility to [the] community. We were born and raised here. We’re raising three children here. We’re owning and operating a business here with, you know, close to 50 employees. We are responsible for the safety of our staff, for our children. And yet, we still want to contribute financially to our community. And our hands are tied.
Ryssdal: There was some concern, I think, when we spoke in January, about whether you were even going to make it. Are you still worried about that?
Powers: Yeah, absolutely. Only because we very well could be shut down again next month for all we know. Do we stick with the business model? Again, we’re seeing record sales. But all of that could disappear again tomorrow, and we could burn through the cash reserves we’ve got very quickly, as we learned the hard way in 2020. I just see this very uncertain path in front of us. And that equates to great stress in the home and the marriage and the business. And, you know, luckily, we are managing for the time being.
Ryssdal: This is none of my business, but it sure seems like you and your husband have sunk everything into this business. And I can only imagine that the last year-plus has been eye-opening for you that maybe you oughta diversify a little bit.
Powers: Yeah, I think we talked about that. That was my word of 2021: “diversification.” I was going to have a pin made and wear it all day, every day to remind myself, “This is a lot of eggs in one basket.” So we’re still looking at ways that we can do that. But it’s hard to make those purchases, it’s hard to invest that money when you don’t know if you’re going to need it to put food on the table, you know, six months from now.
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