HILO, Hawaii -- Three months ago, bright orange rivers of
lava were gushing from the craters, vents and fissures of the Kilauea volcano
on the Island of Hawaii in a spectacular display of nature's awesome might.
Now, the fireworks are over, at least for the moment, and
tourism businesses on Hawaii's biggest island are trying to rebound and
encourage travelers scared off by the violent eruptions to come see the new
The 50th state has ponied up an additional $2 million to
promote the Island of Hawaii in a bid to bring visitors back. And one of the
main engines of interisland tourism, Norwegian Cruise Line, is staging a rare
promotion for its typically sold-out cruises.
The incentives include free roundtrip air from five West
Coast cities and airfares ranging from $299 to $799 from 33 other cities.
The three-month Kilauea eruptions started in May and
produced some of the hottest and fastest-moving lava ever measured. News
reports of boulder-size chunks of lava crashing through roofs kept many
tourists away, even as some flocked to the island to witness the spectacle.
The eruptions tailed off in August, and lava flows have been
dormant for about six weeks, leading to the partial reopening of Hawaii
Volcanoes National Park on Sept. 22.
"We call it a pause because we never know when, if or
how it may come back," said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island
of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. Birch said monthly visitor totals are currently down
between 15% and 20% compared with a year ago.
Both Hawaii and Norwegian are angling for a rebound now that
the island's geology is more normal and less dangerous.
Norwegian CEO Andy Stuart said of the summer eruptions, "We
had a little slowdown during that period. I would say demand is now similar to
what it was before all of that news coverage. But we had a period of time where
business was a bit below, so that's a gap you want to make up over time."
More than 2 million people visited Hawaii Volcanoes National
Park last year, making it one of the state's biggest attractions.
In the aftermath of the eruptions, Birch said, the state
budgeted the extra $2 million -- half of it targeting the U.S., the other half
Japan -- to market the Island of Hawaii this year.
The May 4 eruption, accompanied by an earthquake, forced the
closing of the national park. Tour operators scrambled to modify their
offerings to take advantage of the changing conditions while still keeping
safe, Birch said.
In the Hot Seat
Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of
Hawaii Visitors Bureau spoke about
persuade tourists to return to the island following the Kilauea volcano
eruptions. Read More
Lava typically inches along, but at one point in July hot
lava from Kilauea traveled nine miles in just two days. It closed roads,
isolated homes, threatened to overrun a geothermal energy plant and left behind
huge patches of freshly cooled black volcanic rock.
When activity subsided in August, the lava lake in the
Kilauea Crater had been drained, and for the first time since 1983, there were
no active lava flows on the Island of Hawaii. That presents a challenge for
tourism, since the continuously active volcano was one of the things visitors
came to see.
"The lava flow's been in our favor for decades now,"
Birch said. With its end, at least for now, the new opportunity for visitors is
to witness the resulting transformation firsthand. "Today's story is just
coming and observing what has happened through this major eruption that we had."
New sights to see
It isn't often that a tourist destination actually adds land
to visit, but that's exactly what happened as a result of the eruptions. Lava
flowing to the ocean added more than 875 acres to the island.
Tour operators are busy devising tours for both land- and
ship-delivered visitors, Birch said. One obstacle is that many of the changed
areas are southeast of the park boundary, in residential neighborhoods.
He said one possibility is a tour to a new black-sand beach
that was created adjacent to a park.
Norwegian brings about 110,000 visitors to Hawaii annually
and generates about $250,000 in economic activity with each port call.
"That was pretty significant when the eruption occurred
and the [land-based] visitors went away," Birch said.
Except for a week in June, the Pride of America made most of
its scheduled calls at Hilo and Kona during the eruptions.
But Sandi Weir, vice president of destination development
and government relations at Norwegian, said some travel agents shied away from
sending guests or making future bookings while eruptions were still happening.
It didn't help that Hurricane Lane also made landfall in
The combination, Weir said, left the line in the unusual
position of having to solicit bookings on a ship that is typically an easy
Since 2004, Norwegian has been the only cruise line offering
seven-day, interisland cruising. Because the Pride of America is U.S.-flagged,
it is not required under cabotage laws to visit a foreign port in the course of
its cruise. Through August, 38 foreign-flagged cruise ships had visited Hawaii
since Jan. 1, down from 43 for the same period last year, meaning cruise
visitors were down 6.8% for the year.
Stuart said he hopes the offer of free air will get people
to pay attention to the fact that Hawaii's circumstances have changed since
"We wanted to do something that would really make
people lift their heads," he said.
Stuart said Norwegian's itinerary of five calls on four
islands showcases Hawaii's striking variety and unique culture.
"It's a domestic destination that doesn't feel like a
domestic destination," Stuart said.
Birch said there are new reasons to come to the Island of
Hawaii. One is air quality. For the first time in decades, the particles and
noxious gases that lava pushes into the atmosphere have disappeared, he said.
Although the lava flows claimed a number of vacation
rentals, accommodations are a relative bargain now, Birch said.
And over the past four years, the Island of Hawaii had
doubled its airlift, growing from about 615,000 seats in 2014 to some 1.3
million this year.
"Our industry is ready and prepared," Birch said. "We're
waiting for everybody to come back."