The Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park remains closed, but the eruptions of Mount Kilauea may actually be providing new options for travelers.
Over the past few weeks, Hawaii residents have witnessed one of their state’s top attractions turn into a serious concern for the tourism industry. The eruption of Mount Kilauea, a volcano located in the lower Puna area on the southeast corner of the island of Hawaii — also known as the “Big Island” — began on May 3, sending lava rivers into the ocean and ash plumes 30,000 feet into the air near the town of Hilo.
The eruptions activated a “code red” warning from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and most of the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park — the park that is home to Mount Kilauea, and the state’s biggest attraction — has been closed to visitors since May 11.
“There's no way to tell how long the park will be closed,” said Jessica Ferracane, a public affairs specialist for the park, “but we will remain closed until it's safe to reopen.”
As news of the eruption flowed out around the world, so did local concerns of a secondary disaster: a tourism shutdown.
On Monday, the National Park Service reported that the closure of the park alone could cost the local economy $166 million. (The park contributed that amount to the local economy, according to a National Park System report measuring what park visitors typically spend in local areas near parks, including hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and rental cars, in 2017.)
A National Park System economist, Lynne Koontz, though, believes that the most precise way to measure the impact the park's closure will have on the local economy is by breaking down the annual figure into a daily average — $455,000 per day — and multiplying that by the number of days the park has been closed. After 17 days, that added up to $7.3 million.
But since tourism provides 30 percent of the private sector jobs on the Big Island, concern has grown over the potential of a long-term hit on the island’s economy.
"I believe we will lose customers,” said Joel Genavia, the assistant general manager of the Fishhopper restaurant in Kona, on the western side of the Big Island. The restaurant serves 500 to 800 people a day, 75 percent of whom are tourists, Mr. Genavia estimates. “I’m worried that this will mean that my workers, and other workers at tourism businesses around the island, are going to end up getting laid off,” he said.
The trepidation about traveling to Hawaii has been felt up and down the tourism chain on the Big Island. At least three major cruise lines — Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises — have canceled a stop at the Big Island. George Szigeti, the president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said that airlines have reported Hawaii-bound seat cancellations, especially on those flights that route directly to the resort hub of Kona on the Big Island.
Both Japan Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, which operate flights to Kona (from Tokyo and Los Angeles), said that all flights were operating as scheduled, but Hawaiian Airlines noted that it has experienced a “moderate drop in bookings for close-in travel to the island of Hawaii,” the airline said in a statement, adding that it had offered to waive change fees “for guests traveling through Hilo and Kona until May 31.”
Further down the tourism chain, other cancellations have also been registered. Airbnb said that since the eruption began, 11 percent of the company’s short-term vacation rentals on the island of Hawaii have been canceled. The Hilo Seaside Hotel, a Hawaiian family-owned hotel just 30 miles northeast of Mount Kilauea, reported cancellations as well.
Maureen Goto, the owner of Maureen’s Bed and Breakfast, a five-room guesthouse in Hilo, said that she was seeing no effects from the volcano outside — just calls from customers. “I’m standing outside right now and the sun is shining and the tradewinds are blowing and the palms are swaying,” she said with a laugh. Still, she said that almost all of her guests have called with concerns, and some have canceled. She says she tells them, “Don’t change your plans, we depend on you.”
Some sectors of the tourism industry, though, have been working to provide local solutions to the crisis. Airbnb has asked short-term-rental hosts who are willing to provide free housing to relief workers and displaced residents in the lower Puna area to list their homes through a company website. Uber capped surge pricing on the island of Hawaii after the eruption, and offered free rides to residents trying to access shelters.
As of Saturday, the eruption had destroyed at least 82 structures on the Big Island, including many homes; the total amount of land covered by lava is estimated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be 2,200 acres.
But to Hawaii residents, tourists’ fears and their resulting booking cancellations are a source of deep frustration, owing to what they say is a fundamental misunderstanding of the geography of the state and overly alarmist reporting: The eruption is occurring in a rural, 10-square mile area in the southeastern corner of the most southeastern island of the state’s eight main islands. Honolulu, for example, is more than 200 miles from the erupting volcano.
"People canceling trips to Honolulu — that’s just because they don’t understand the geography of our state,” said Mr. Genavia, in a voice quivering with anger. “That’s just ridiculous to us.” His restaurant is 100 miles from the eruption site, but he’s still losing business.
Jerry Gibson, an area vice president for Hilton Hawaii, notes that the company is still seeing cancellations at their resorts, despite the fact that many of the company’s properties are far from the eruption.
"Hawaii is open for business,” insisted Mr. Szigeti of the tourism authority. He said that canceling a trip to Honolulu because of the volcano on the Big Island was like “canceling a trip to Cabo because of a volcano in Mexico City.” He said that the residents whose homes were being threatened by the lava knew the risk when they bought their properties (the volcano has been erupting neatly continuously since 1983). “The people who live there respect the volcano and know its power,” he added.
There has even been an upside to the eruptions for some in the tourism sector. Travelers have been seeking out Mount Kilauea for a chance to see its ever-changing output. The spectacle of lava flowing into the ocean has generated particular interest, with boats setting out to give visitors a view of the lava from a safe, watery distance. Ms. Goto said her guests set out earlier this week on a “Lava Ocean Tour” for $225 a piece. “It’s not cheap,” she said, “but I mean, come on, it’s the experience of a lifetime.”
Park officials discourage this type of tourism, at least from land. Ms. Ferracane noted that people stopping on the sides of Highway 11 to watch the ash clouds and plume rise up and out of the summit crater puts them at risk for a motor vehicle accident along a busy stretch of road. She added that travelers “who enter closed areas put our first responders at risk, and drain resources away from other critical uses.”
Although the Hilo Seaside Hotel, one of the closest hotels to the volcano site, has seen multiple cancellations, it is also receiving new bookings to take the cancellations’ place exactly because of the thrill of the erupting volcano. In fact, the hotel is now sold out for the next two weeks, according to two employees.
Mr. Szigeti urged potential visitors to view the eruption not as a bad thing, but as a natural part of the Hawaiian island environment. “Mount Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world,” he said. “And she’s putting on a heck of a show right now.”