Hawaii feels a hit to its tourism as images of Kilauea proliferate

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Helicopter overflight of Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift zone on May 19.
Helicopter overflight of Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift zone on May 19. Photo Credit: USGS

Despite the efforts of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and state officials to hammer home the message that travel to all of the islands, including Hawaii Island, is safe, the industry has taken a significant hit from the recent volcanic eruptions.



Agents, tour operators and hotel managers last week reported a drop in bookings ranging from 25% to 50% for Hawaii Island, and with new developments coming every day from Kilauea, which has been active since 1983, many travelers are spooked.

On Hawaii Island, lower Puna, a roughly 10-square-mile region on the eastern edge, has been devastated with lava flows and fissures that have destroyed homes and roadways. It is completely closed to visitors.

Lava has reached the coast, and boat tours have already begun bringing spectators to see it enter the ocean while they remain a safe distance from the noxious clouds of gas created when it strikes seawater.

The majority of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closed until further notice, and damage to roads and structures will await repairs until crews can safely re-enter the park. A National Park Service report found that in 2017, more than two million visitors came to the park, spending $166 million in local communities and supporting 2,020 jobs.

A handful of cruise lines, including Crystal Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, have skipped scheduled stops on Hawaii Island in the past few weeks.

Travel agents who specialize in Hawaii have reported getting regular, panicked calls from clients with a range of inquiries. For the most part, hotels and activities on Hawaii Island are running normally, and flights have been unaffected.

Still, Bryan Walker of Hawaiian Travel, a Texas-based agency, said he has heard from clients who are worried about their trips to neighboring islands like Maui and Kauai. For Hawaii Island, he's experienced a roughly 50% drop in bookings.

"The sensationalism in the media has left a lot of false impressions," Walker said. "It is a truly tragic event for the people affected. It, however, does not really affect the bulk of the island or the bulk of the tourist areas."

Walker said he is reminding his clients that the impacted area is relatively small and of the plethora of other activities on Hawaii Island.

At Hale Ohu Bed and Breakfast in Volcano Village, just outside the entrance to the national park, business has slowed to a crawl, but the town is operating normally, owner Nicole Naughten said. The small B&B typically gets seven to 10 reservations a week, but lately they're getting only one or two bookings each week.

"We've had no ash in town from the steam eruptions," she said. "It's all downwind and going to the south, which is the prevailing wind direction. We are not smelling vog; we have clear blue skies today."

A lot of the questions from clients and customers have had to do with air quality, agents and operators said. While there is concern about increased vog -- a catchall term for hazy emissions from the volcano, which can be a mix of water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide -- air quality has largely remained normal across the state, according to state and tourism officials.

Travel Leaders Group surveyed more than two dozen members of its agent advisory board, representatives of various agencies around the country, and found a less profound impact than some individual agents and operators were reporting. Just 10% of respondents reported cancellations, and they also said interest in Hawaii continues to be strong, according to Travel Leaders Group chief marketing officer Stephen McGillivray.

A portion of a graphic produced by the Hawaii Tourism Authority shows the location of the volcanic activity on the island of Hawaii. The HTA is also updating www.hawaiitourismauthority.org/news/special-alert with information on Kilauea. An update published May 23 said in underlined type: “There is absolutely no reason for visitors ... to alter their leisure or business travel plans.”
A portion of a graphic produced by the Hawaii Tourism Authority shows the location of the volcanic activity on the island of Hawaii. The HTA is also updating www.hawaiitourismauthority.org/news/special-alert with information on Kilauea. An update published May 23 said in underlined type: “There is absolutely no reason for visitors ... to alter their leisure or business travel plans.”

Packagers specializing in Hawaii said last week that some clients have canceled their Hawaii trips. Classic Vacations, for example, said the Kilauea eruption had impacted bookings throughout the state.

President David Hu sent an email to agent partners earlier this month. "Travelers planning on visiting any of the Hawaiian Islands can be assured that their plans do not need to change," he wrote.

Pleasant Holidays' website includes a link to a map produced by the Hawaii Tourism Authority that shows where the volcanic activity is taking place (see a portion of the graphic, above). "That area is more than 100 miles away from the Western Kohala and Kona coasts, where the island's major hotels and resorts are located," Pleasant Holidays stated.

Hawaii Forest & Trail owner Rob Pacheco, who has been on the island since 1990, is predicting a 25% loss in income due to eruptions and subsequent cancellations. He counts himself lucky, though, because the tour company operates numerous hikes and excursions in other parts of the island; tour companies solely focused on the national park are hurting even more.

Pacheco said his message to prospective visitors is, "Please come and experience our wonderful island. It is 4,000 square miles, and about 20 square miles are being impacted by the volcano. If your whole purpose for coming here was to go to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, OK, maybe you should postpone. But other than that, there's no reason why you shouldn't come. There's no safety issue."

Michelle Baran contributed to this report.

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