Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Kilauea, the attention-grabbing volcano on Hawaii Island, has been active since 1983, but on May 3 several tremors and a large eruption marked the beginning of an especially dynamic period.

For weeks, the volcano has spewed ash into the air and lava has emerged from rifts in the ground, at times rushing like a river through residential areas on the eastern tip of the island, reforming the land and destroying more than 600 homes. Two-thirds of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closed, including many of the main attractions, and it is still unclear how long it will be before Hawaii's most visited attraction reopens. 

While the volcano continues its heightened activity, media attention and initial excitement have died down. Tour companies have adjusted, adding new itineraries and taking advantage of a new area where lava is spilling into the ocean.

"The sentiment of 'Oh my God, I can't believe it's happening,' that has dwindled off over the last month," said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. "I think the word is getting out and it's switching back to 'it's still a great time to come.' It is certainly scary for the people in that area that has been hit by the lava flows, but everyone understands where that is geographically and it's a limited area."

While some potential visitors are still concerned and calling hotels and tour providers with questions and, in some cases, cancelling their trips, Birch said they have started to see increased interest from travelers who want to come to the island because of the increased volcanic activity. For now, though, viewing options are limited. Authorities are keeping visitors out of unstable areas, but there are helicopters going out that can provide a bird's-eye view of the flows, and at least three boat tours are running trips to the lava's ocean entry. In both cases operators should be observing safety perimeters mandated by the FAA and Coast Guard, respectively. 

"We're working on establishing a viable viewing area. That's really our goal, but we're quite a ways away from that," Birch said. "The state, county and local governments are looking at that, a place where interested visitors and locals alike can safely view the new lava flows and activity."

It is clear that the dynamics of tourism will shift moving forward. One of the park's most popular sites is the Halemaumau Crater which, until the recent eruptions, was full of lava. After pouring out lava for a month, Kilauea's marquee crater has emptied and will not be the same attraction when the park reopens. 

"Our number one attraction could be out for months, and that's something we've never seen before," Birch said. "I don't recall, other than some government shutdowns, having the park being closed."

With tremors continuing in the park, including a magnitude 5.5 earthquake on June 3, there are still no estimates for when it will reopen. Hundreds of shallow earthquakes beneath Kilauea's summit in the last month have damaged multiple park buildings, torn apart roads, and ruptured water lines.

Currently, park rangers are offering programs for visitors at the national park's Kahuku Unit, Volcano Art Center's Niaulani Campus, and the Mokuppapa Discovery Center in Hilo, all free of charge. 

Damage and destruction from lava flows is largely contained to a 10-square mile area on Hawaii Island's eastern tip. The residential area, which includes Leilani Estates, is under emergency designation and closed to traffic. Meanwhile, other than some increased VOG, smog or haze containing volcanic dust and gases, the vast majority of the island is operating as normal. Flights have been unaffected.

A big step forward for tourism occurred last week when Norwegian Cruise Line resumed calls to Hawaii Island ports. Birch has estimated that each missed port in Kailua-Kona costs West Hawaii around $175,000 in visitor spending.

"With NCL not porting, that was sending a message that it was still not quite safe. So, having that back in port is reassuring," Birch said. "I've heard that the stops went well and all the passengers had a great time.

Hilo, on Hawaii Island's east side, is more dependent on both national park and cruise tourism than the Kona side of the island.

Providers have switched up their itineraries and diversified with the park unavailable, Birch said, including adding tours to the top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the northside of the island that is home to at least a dozen world-class astronomical observatories. 

The last four years Hawaii Island has shown consistent growth in tourism, and Kilauea's eruptions have been the first hiccup in that growth. 

While tour operators and hotels were reporting cancellations and anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent loss in business in May, when Kilauea was making national news, the impact is still unclear. Some operators say now that they were not hit as hard with cancellations as they anticipated, but until visitations numbers come out for May and June, it will be hard to accurately measure the effect, Birch said. 

"One of the most disheartening things is that we had reached our highest level of airlift for Hawaii Island, the hotels were planning and had inventory all set," Birch said. "We were anticipating a number and it's not quite there."

To help with marketing the island after the natural disaster, the Hawaii Tourism Authority authorized $500,000 in emergency funding, half to Hawaii Tourism USA and half to Hawaii Tourism Japan to put together campaigns largely focused on Hawaii Island.

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