Financial woes weigh on Hawaii attractions as they begin reopening

Caption - Iolani Palace, owned by the state of Hawaii and operated by a nonprofit, has seen revenue plummet during the coronavirus pandemic.
Caption - Iolani Palace, owned by the state of Hawaii and operated by a nonprofit, has seen revenue plummet during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo Credit: HTA/Tor Johnson

The only royal residence in the United States has weathered more than 130 years of monarchs, armed overthrows, government bureaucracy and public tours, but the coronavirus pandemic may be the greatest burden yet on the former seat of the Hawaii monarchy.

Without state aid and a quick infusion of cash, Iolani Palace is in jeopardy of insolvency, officials from the nonprofit operating the National Historic Landmark announced at a June 19 press conference.

After two months in hibernation thanks to the pandemic, several major attractions in Hawaii are starting to reopen with drastically changed economic outlooks, and the situation at Iolani Palace appears to be one of the most precarious.

The building is an essential link to Hawaii's history as an independent monarchy. Completed in 1882 during the reign of King Kalakaua, it served as the Hawaiian royalty's residence and place of business until the U.S. Marine-backed overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. The nonprofit Friends of Iolani Palace runs and maintains the building and property, which is owned by the state. Ticket sales, gift shop purchases, special events and donations drive revenue for salaries and operations.

Since the palace shut down in March, it has lost roughly $600,000, and loses approximately $7,700 daily while closed, executive director Paula Akana said at the press conference. The palace welcomed between 450 and 550 visitors daily prior to the pandemic; now the total daily admittance is capped at 105, and visitors must be staggered in groups of five. Additionally, Iolani Palace is open only on Fridays and Saturdays for self-guided tours, down from its typical six days per week, and visitors must make reservations online or by phone.

"We're hurting badly," Akana said. "We are probably only looking at about 10% of what we would normally have coming in."

Akana stressed that even while the palace was closed to the public, several expenses could not be avoided, such as building security and running the air conditioning around the clock in order to preserve materials. Compounding the financial troubles, the palace is in need of critical repairs and maintenance.

"They have been shut -- no revenue whatsoever -- but they have huge upkeep challenges that don't go away in an old, old, old building," Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell said at the press conference.

Without more funding, the palace coffers could run dry in three to four months, according to Akana, who is currently promoting memberships and tours to Hawaii residents and pursuing grants.

"There is so much to see in there and so much that we want to share," she said. "But the palace is in trouble. We really need your help by buying a ticket and coming to visit us, by buying a membership, by making a donation, or buying a ticket for someone else."

The Bishop Museum in Honolulu reopened to members on June 19 and the general public on June 26. The Honolulu attraction will also be launching "Outdoor Museum" experiences, a selection of offerings, activities and events that will allow visitors opportunities to learn, play and enjoy being outdoors on the museum's 15-acre campus.

"We recognize that many families are eager to get outdoors and off screens to break the usual routine, and we want to provide a safe and enriching outlet for this," Melanie Ide, president and CEO of Bishop Museum, said in a statement.  We're looking at new ways to interpret our gardens and historic grounds, bringing in partners to engage visitors in their work, and getting more shade for people to relax, picnic or just watch their kids from a safe distance."

New programming for the Outdoor Museum will rotate on a monthly basis, with a theme of Na Mea Ola or "Health and Wellness" for the June reopening through the month of July.

Everyone entering the museum campus will be required to wear a facemask at all times and practice social distancing of at least 6 feet. Museum daily capacity has been limited to no more than 500 people, and visitors are encouraged to purchase their tickets online for a designated time slot.

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial also reopened with new safety measures. The memorial's visitor center, grounds, museums, audio desk for narrated tours, and bookstore are all open. The Pearl Harbor National Memorial Theater and the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma and USS Utah memorials remain closed, with no date yet announced for reopening.


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