Maybe. Eventually. Not so fast.

KANcycling has been trying to be vigilant for any signs of the re-opening of travel to Japan, even though most signs are pointing in the opposite direction. But occasionally there are faint glimmers of hope.

Last week there was a flurry of reports about a possible travel “bubble” between Japan and Hawaii. This was reported by both Hawaii media and U.S. national media. Oddly enough, reporting by media in Japan covered it as a story from Hawaii, with no confirmation from Japanese government or media sources. And eventually the talk died down.

We were starting to think that the story had been premature, but Hawaii’s Governor David Ige mentioned the possibility again in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article published today, so the idea is definitely being considered. As far as we can tell, though, apart from an initial (and fairly vague) comment from the Japanese government, the speculation seems to be coming entirely from the Hawaii side.

Let’s start at the beginning. The talk appears to have been kick-started by an article in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on July 27:

Japan includes Hawaii on list of 12 approved travel locations; no start date set

The state of Hawaii is on an exclusive list of 12 countries and regions that Japan leaders are considering for the resumption of safe international travel, officials announced today.

The new Japan-Hawaii Safe Travel Program, announced by Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, would be tightly regulated to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections. It would require proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction test result prior to travel, in addition to a required examination of travelers upon entry to Japan.

Apparently the article has a wording error: in actuality, Hawaii and European countries would be considered in addition to the original 12 countries and regions rather than being included among them. This is according to the press release from Hawaii’s Governor Ige which was the apparent basis for the Star-Advertiser article. The press release puts it thusly:

Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Motegi announced that international travel between Japan and the 12 destinations is being considered in the near future with Europe and Hawai‘i to follow in the next step.

This appears to reference a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) press conference by Abe and Motegi on July 22, during which Motegi said the following:

Furthermore, based on the decision today by the NSC and the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters, coordination will swiftly begin with 12 countries and regions: Brunei, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Macao, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Singapore and Taiwan. The “Residence Track” and “Business Track” will be introduced sequentially from countries and regions with which coordination is complete. We would like to consider going forward on whether to target the main countries of Europe, Hawaii, and other locations for this scheme as the next step.

It should be noted that neither the press release from the governor’s office nor the MOFA press conference say anything about a specific “Japan-Hawaii Safe Travel Program” as mentioned in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser article, and we’ve been unable to find any mention of such a program in searches conducted in both Japanese and English. (And the governor did not mention a program by that name in the remarks published today.) It is possible that this is something that was discussed privately by Japanese officials and the governor, but we’ve been unable to confirm its existence.

But even if there isn’t a formal program yet, this still means preparations for the opening of Japan-Hawaii travel are underway, right? Well, unfortunately, this is most likely not the case — at least not yet. Here the translated English of the MOFA press conference may be a bit misleading:

We would like to consider going forward on whether to target the main countries of Europe, Hawaii, and other locations for this scheme as the next step.

In the original Japanese,  this sentence has “as the next step” at the very beginning, which is a stronger indication that a decision regarding Hawaii and countries in Europe will be made only AFTER coordination for the original 12 countries has been completed.

For the record, USA Today seems to have gotten the full story correct, both by providing a link to the original MOFA press conference and for stating clearly that “Europe and Hawaii would be next on the list for consideration” [following the original 12 countries and regions].

So, even in the best of circumstances, this would likely take time to become a reality.

However, things have changed dramatically in both Japan and Hawaii since July 22. New infections have skyrocketed in Japan, particularly in Tokyo but in other major cities as well. Okinawa has already declared a new emergency and other prefectures are considering doing the same to implore people to refrain from unnecessary outside activity. And the Honolulu mayor has just ordered all bars on Oahu to be shut down for three weeks, and today the Lieutenant Governor speculated that another shutdown might be necessary. So the prospects for the travel “bubble” may be getting worse, even before a long-expected autumn resurgence of the virus.

Governor Ige’s most recent remarks (made during a Facebook Live discussion) were summarized by the Star-Advertiser today with a much less optimistic headline than previous articles about the issue — but the actual text of the article began with speculation about a non-quarantine opening up of travel with Japan:

Gov. David Ige highlights hurdles to welcoming back visitors to Hawaii

The first travelers to Hawaii not subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic could be from Japan, according to Gov. David Ige.

The governor raised the possibility today during a Honolulu Star-Advertiser Spotlight Hawaii discussion via Facebook Live, during which he also broached the subject of new restrictions on activity in the state if coronavirus cases don’t decrease this week.

Ige said Hawaii could welcome visitors from Japan before visitors from the mainland if a pre-travel testing program can be implemented along with an agreement with government officials in Japan.

However, Ige gave no indication of the likelihood of welcoming such visitors from Japan before the mainland.

“There’s not an explicit sequence that needs to happen,” he said. “If we can get agreements in Japan … if they are ready ahead of the domestic U.S., then we clearly would want to move forward with that. As you know, the virus activity is not as out of control in Japan or South Korea as it might be in the U.S.”

In fact, the actual focus of the article seems to be on travel arrangements not with Japan but with the U. S. mainland — specifically, on the governor’s comment that the target date of September 1 for allowing visitors from the U. S. mainland to come without the mandatory 14-day quarantine was “only a goal” and might be delayed. The Star-Advertiser quotes him as saying that “the availability of testing and coronavirus case levels in Hawaii and in key mainland travel markets are an issue for allowing such travel.”

So, rather than indicating definite plans for a Japan-Hawaii travel arrangement, it appears that the governor only meant that, if the virus levels and testing problems delay the quarantine-free program for U. S. mainland travel, and if the preparations with Japan go more smoothly, then the program might be implemented for Japan first. But a lot of work remains to be done.

And what about the Japan side? After that initial comment about Hawaii in the July 22 MOFA press conference, there seems to have been no official statements and no discussion in the Japanese media about a potential travel link with Hawaii. If preparations are underway, they are taking place very quietly.

So it appears that the Japan-Hawaii travel “bubble” is under consideration, but only that, and much work must be done before it can become a reality.  In other words: Not so fast.

We’ll keep monitoring the situation and will let you know if anything changes.


Will There Be a Japan - Hawaii Travel “Bubble”?

C Y C L I N G  •  S P E C I A L   R E P O R T