Hilo Rebounds From Tidal Waves, Lava Flows, Budget Cuts


Reed Travel Features

HILO -- Hilo is a survivor.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Big Island's major town saw tourism's mainstream move to the new resorts of the dry, sunny Kohala and Kona coasts, 80 miles away.

It has been the butt of rain jokes, suffered tsunami disasters and near misses from lava flows.

In late 1994, this market town of 35,000 nestled along Hilo Bay lost its traditional plantation base.

Hamakua Sugar Co. closed, laying off 600 employees. It was the last plantation on the 50-mile Hamakua Coast.

Ironically, the following year Hilo became -- and remains -- the only destination to lose state tourism marketing funding.

A casualty of legislative budget cuts, Destination Hilo, its promotion group, has been struggling to promote with limited funding.

But much has been happening here, and clients should take a serious look at Hilo.

The historical downtown area has undergone a decade of restoration under the Hilo Main Street program. Two years ago, Hilo's old sampan buses returned after a 20-year absence.

A downtown farmers' market, held Wednesdays and Saturdays in a vacant lot at Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street, has been operating for six years.

Also downtown, the Lyman House Museum, which includes the island's oldest frame home, will reopen soon, following expansion.

And planning for the 10,000-square-foot Pacific Tsunami Museum is under way.

For tourists with a car planning to explore Hawaii's largest island, Hilo could be the ideal base, especially for those who want to escape crowds and commercialism.

The hotels here are inexpensive.

Also, the town is only 28 miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which, with 15 straight years of eruptions, has helped bolster Hilo's visitor numbers.

Visitors fly to Hilo Airport, the first of Hawaii's modern neighbor-island airports.

Its terminal opened 20 years ago in preparation for a tourist boom that never happened.

A handful of U.S. airlines flew to what was an international airport, and Hilo was on wholesaler group itineraries.

With airline deregulation, wholesalers abandoned Hilo until the late 1980s, when the town began appearing again in packages.

This is a relaxing airport, built for bigger passenger numbers.

Now, you are ready for the charms of Hilo -- the waterfalls, the gardens, the orchid and anthuriums of the Big Island's flower-growing center (some of the charm comes from the rain; this is the nation's wettest city with populations of more than 20,000, averaging 128 inches a year).

Hotels are only two miles from the airport, concentrated along tree-shaded Banyan

Drive at the southern end of the bay.

The rich and famous planted the banyans along the route.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King George V were here in 1934, and filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, actor Herbert Marshal and aviator Amelia Earhart were among those who planted trees.

Banyan Drive has changed little in 20 years.

The last property opened was the Castle Group's 285-room Hilo Hawaiian, in 1975.

Others include the 325-room Hawaii Naniloa; Uncle Billy's Hilo Bay, with 143 rooms, and the 140-room Hilo Seaside.

Hilo's average daily room rate for the first nine months of last year was $73.36 a night, according to management consultants and CPA firm PKF-Hawaii.

Also on Banyan Drive are Liliuokalani Gardens, with 30 acres of Japanese gardens open to the public, and Suisan Fish Market, where visitors can watch the tuna auction after the fishing boats get in (daily except Sundays, at 7:45 a.m.).

Downtown is located a mile or so away.

Those without wheels can take the sampan from the hotels to downtown.

Revived by the Hilo Sampan Co. in late 1994, the eight-passenger, open-air vehicles run Mondays through Saturdays ($2 one-way pass or $7 for a day pass).

The highway sweeps around the bay, fronted by park land, a testimony to Hilo's two tsunami disasters.

A section of downtown destroyed by tidal waves, the lowest-lying area, was not built on again.

On April 1, 1946, a tsunami generated in the Aleutians killed 159 people in Hilo and the village of Laupahoehoe, 30 miles to the north.

A second, in 1960, originated off Chile and killed 61, mostly in Hilo.

Last April, Hilo commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1946 disaster.

A nonprofit group, planning the Pacific Tsunami Museum as a monument to the victims, has a $1.5 million fund-raising campaign under way. Last month, Gov. Ben Cayetano announced the museum's location: Prince Kuhio Plaza, Hilo's largest shopping center, south of town.

Hilo has been affected by the closure of Hamakua Sugar Co.

"This has definitely had a detrimental effect on Hilo businesses," said Alice Moon, manager of the Hilo Main Street program.

However, she added, "There's a spirit here. These people are survivors."

Hard times are seen in the cancellation last fall of two annual events because of a lack of financial support.

Canceled were the Aloha Hawaii Beauty Pageant (after 45 years) and a street party that would have been part of the statewide Aloha Festivals.

Hilo's biggest event, the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, held last April, was not affected.

Hawaii's largest competitive hula event, Merrie Monarch always is sold out; this year's event, the 34th, will be held March 30 to April 6.

Kate Ahia, Destination Hilo administrator, is optimistic about Hilo's future, pointing to the growing number of cruise ships stopping at Hilo.

More than 20 ships will arrive here this year.

That is in addition to the arrival each Thursday of American Hawaii Cruises' Independence.

Ahia said that one day in port provides little time to see the town.

Passengers usually are pre-booked on tours, the most popular being to the volcanoes. Others take a shopping shuttle to Prince Kuhio Plaza.

Formed in 1989, Destination Hilo has 60 members, mostly small businesses.

With little political clout in Honolulu, it lost its annual state funding of $190,000 in 1995.

It has a free, four-page tabloid available, entitled "Hilo, Hawaii's Tropical Nature Center."

For copies or specific information on Hilo, contact the group at (800) HILO DAY or fax (808) 969-1984.

In the days when it had money for advertising, it promoted with the theme of Hilo's unique "hometown mountain."

Mauna Loa, climbing 13,679 feet above sea level, is the solar system's second-largest mountain (Olympus Mons on Mars is the largest).

The entire Sierra Nevada chain, the ads said, could fit comfortably inside Mauna Loa.

Although it is miles away in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hilo has a special claim.

Lava spewing from Mauna Loa stopped less than five miles from the nearest home during its last eruption in 1984.

The town's closest call came in 1880, when lava came within a mile and a half of the bay.

Paula Hefrich, executive director of the Hilo-based Hawaii Island Economic Development Board, a private, nonprofit group, is another who is confident about the town's future.

"Last century, we had timber; in the 1920s, coffee. Both have gone, and sugar has gone, but Hilo's population never declined," she said.

"It just doesn't survive; it excels," she said, adding that other crops are beginning to take over Hamakua's sugar acres.

"It has stability, charm and an identity, what I call a second-city attitude."

Today, Hilo has a University of Hawaii campus and is administrative headquarters for the growing number of observatories atop 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, which can be seen from town.

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