Dengue outbreak slows on Big Island

A number of attractions, such as the Mauna Kea summit, haven’t been affected by the dengue outbreak because their elevation is inhospitable to the Aedes mosquito.
A number of attractions, such as the Mauna Kea summit, haven’t been affected by the dengue outbreak because their elevation is inhospitable to the Aedes mosquito. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Big Island Visitors Bureau
State officials are hopeful that they've turned the corner in an ongoing struggle with dengue fever on the Big Island of Hawaii, where 263 people have contracted the mosquito-borne virus since the outbreak's onset in September.

As of April 1, the Hawaii Department of Health was reporting no potentially infectious individuals on the island, with the last case confirmed on March 18, one of just two confirmed during the entire month. Out of the locally acquired dengue cases, 237 have been Big Island residents, while 26 were visitors.

"We want to be cautiously optimistic that we may be seeing the end of this outbreak in the near future," said Darryl Oliveira, the administrator for the County of Hawaii Civil Defense, who cautioned that outbreaks of this nature typically feature a sizable number of people who do not report symptoms or submit to confirmation testing.

"For now, we're maintaining the vigilance and doing our due diligence," Oliveira said.

In recent weeks, the County of Hawaii Civil Defense has reopened a pair of popular visitor destinations that had been closed to travelers because they posed a particularly high risk of dengue infection. Waipio Valley, located on the island's northern coast, reopened in mid-March, and Hookena Beach Park, on the island's western shore, reopened in February.

"We saw six weeks on average go by without any cases being associated with those areas," Oliveira said. "So that presented us with a level of confidence that the level of risk was extremely low for those areas being sources of infection."

The reopening of Waipio Valley to visitors was particularly great news for Gary Matsuo, the owner of Waipio Valley Shuttle, a tour company that offers guided products through the remote but culturally rich and naturally stunning destination.

"We couldn't go down in the valley for nine weeks," Matsuo said. "Financially, it drained up pretty much all the savings I had stored up."

Matsuo said he was considering closing permanently if the valley wasn't reopened in March, and while spring isn't the company's busiest season. travelers are again booking his tours, which often appeal to retirees or families with smaller children who aren't interested in touring Waipio on horseback or all-terrain vehicles.

"It's also people looking for more of a cultural experience," Matsuo said. "Our guides are really informative and do a really great job sharing the spirit of the valley that you don't get riding a horse, because those groups get a little spread out."

Waipio Valley, a popular visitor destination that civil defense officials closed during the dengue fever high point, reopened in mid-March.
Waipio Valley, a popular visitor destination that civil defense officials closed during the dengue fever high point, reopened in mid-March. Photo Credit: Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Waipio Valley Shuttle works closely with other providers like Waipio on Horseback and Naalapa Stables, both of which are taking visitor bookings again, as well as KapohoKine Adventures, an islandwide activity company that fared better during the dengue outbreak.

"We really didn't see any kind of major business interruption," said Gary Marrow, the co-owner of KapohoKine Adventures. "We were really lucky in that most of the places we visit just didn't see much of an impact."

The tour provider was forced to alter its Waipio Valley Explorer product, which it operates in partnership with Matsuo's company.

"We just took guests to the Waipio Valley overlook instead and spent more time at other locations," Marrow said, noting that they added time in the island's Puna district and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. "We also lowered the price."

Business has been brisk in recent months for KapohoKine despite the dengue outbreak, according to Marrow.

"Year over year, we're actually doing better thus far in 2016," he said.

Rob Pacheco, the president and founder of Hawaii Forest & Trail, another major activity provider on the Big Island, said his company has also seen little impact on business due to dengue.

"We're having a real good first quarter," Pacheco said. "We're going to be up over last year, and we haven't really seen anything that has impacted us from dengue. I think we've had one family that canceled on us and decided not to come. That's the only one."

Pacheco attributed that lack of impact at least in part to the fact that many of the company's tour areas aren't home to the Aedes mosquito, which transmits diseases such as dengue or Zika. Many of the Big Island's most popular visitor destinations, such as the Mauna Kea summit or Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, are situated at elevations that simply aren't hospitable for the mosquito.

Dengue fever and the Zika virus are not native to Hawaii, but as the state is home to the Aedes mosquito, dengue had been imported to the Islands in the past from other regions by infected travelers, who've then infected the local mosquito population. The Aloha State's last dengue outbreak occurred in 2011, when four cases were confirmed on Oahu.

Through April 1, there had been no confirmed cases of locally acquired Zika virus in the Islands, according to the Hawaii Department of Health.

While the current Big Island dengue outbreak doesn't appear to have taken much of a toll on the destination's larger tour providers, some hotels and resorts there did attribute a dip in business to the disease.

Earlier this year, Matthew Grauso, the general manager for the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay on the island's southwestern coast, said his property had received dengue-related cancellations for January, February and March, and the resort's first-quarter bookings pace had been noticeably hampered.

The second quarter appears to be a different story.

"The pace in [the second quarter] is back to where it should be," Grauso said, noting that the Sheraton Kona hasn't seen any dengue-related cancellations thus far for April. "I think we've seen the worst of it, and the pace is strong for April and picking up very well for May and June."

Jack Richards, the president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Pleasant Holidays, said his company saw an "initial pushback" due to the dengue outbreak onset in the fall, "but ever since then it's been fine."

"Our Hawaii activities business on the Big Island is actually up year over year," he said. "And going into 2016, there's been no impact whatsoever."

Still, Pleasant did need to accommodate some customers who decided they weren't interested in vacationing on the Big Island after news of the outbreak spread in the fall.

"We did cancel a very small number of people in the early days," Richards said. "We moved them off the island, but they stayed in Hawaii, [and] they usually ended up moving to Kauai, Maui or Honolulu."

Richards, meanwhile, indicated that Pleasant Holidays is doing solid business in the Aloha State overall in 2016.

"I think it's going to be a very good year in Hawaii," he said. "The airfares have moderated. The hotel rates have moderated a little bit, [and] we expect to be up high single digits [year over year] by the end of June."

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