Locals take back tourist-free Waikiki during pandemic

In this April 12, 2020, photo provided by Melissa Chang shows Waikiki Beach in Honolulu that is dramatically less crowded than usual. Hawaii locals like Chang are enjoying an emptier Waikiki for recreation now that a mandatory 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving to the state has left the normally bustling tourist mecca mostly a ghost town. (Melissa Chang via AP)

HONOLULU - Growing up in Hawaii, Amber Lethem's family avoided Waikiki, the world-famous tourist mecca.

“I reflect back on my childhood, Waikiki has always been this pinnacle of like that’s where all the tourists are,” Lethem said. “We didn't really go into Waikiki, ever.”

Many other locals would also shun Waikiki's congested streets and herds of slow-moving tourists.

But now that the coronavirus pandemic has forced state leaders to impose a 14-day quarantine on travellers arriving to the islands, Waikiki is mostly a ghost town. Gov. David Ige has extended the traveller quarantine through June.

So, locals are taking Waikiki back. Residents are enjoying wide sidewalks for running and walking. They’re swimming -- with lots of room for social distancing -- in waters normally clogged with awestruck and sunburned tourists. There’s more parking available for those escaping small houses and apartments in neighbourhoods that don’t have sidewalks.

Lethem, a sales coach who lives on the eastern edge of Waikiki that has fewer hotels, said she's able to enjoy the area for the first time in her life in ways she hasn't be able to before.

“I have been experiencing Waikiki more, and it’s definitely in a different paradigm,” she said. “It’s overwhelming with tons of tourists. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a lot. It’s like, it’s intense.”

Tourists “are sometimes oblivious,” Lethem said. “They're so enamoured by being in Hawaii that they're not as present to people who are local.”

She's appreciating how “beautiful and calm” her community is now. “And I'm so happy to enjoy it in this capacity right now,” she said.

As of Friday, Hawaii had 649 cases of coronavirus. There have been 17 deaths.

Hawaii's traveller quarantine has dramatically reduced the number of daily passengers coming to the tourism-dependent state. On Thursday, 300 visitors arrived in the state, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. During the same time last year, nearly 30,000 passengers arrived daily.

“Waikiki is not Waikiki anymore, obviously,” said Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism and Lodging Association. “So it is a good opportunity for local residents to, you know, enjoy some of those things, perhaps in the past that they’ve been in competition with visitors.”

He warned that if all goes well, an empty Waikiki will be short-lived: “Go now because it's not always going to that way because we have to get people back to work.”

Hawaii has long grappled with how many tourists is too many.

“People say slow it down, less tourists. But that also means a significant number of people are not going to be working," Hannemann said. “Tourism fuels the economy. If they're not working, then Hawaii can't sustain itself.”

Until the tourists return in force, Melissa Chang is enjoying driving from her nearby Honolulu neighbourhood to walk along Waikiki's wide sidewalks.

“I could walk in my own neighbourhood, but there’s a lot of homeless. So it’s actually safer to drive to entrance of Waikiki and walk there," she said.

Previously, the social media professional would go into Waikiki only if she needed to for work. “But for recreation, I'd probably go somewhere else,” she said.

Now, it's more pleasant, and “you can park almost anywhere,” Chang said.

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