Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

This year the theme for National Public Lands Day, held annually on the fourth Saturday of September, is restoration and resilience. The focus is particularly appropriate for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which plans to partially reopen that day after the longest continuous closure in its history.

The tremors and eruptions from Kilauea that began May 3 have mostly quieted since early August, United States Geological Survey officials report, after roughly three months of destructive activity including rivers of lava that consumed more than 700 homes and other structures and formed nearly 900 acres of new land.

After three months of eruptions punctuated by a damaging wildfire that burned nearly 3,800 acres of forest on Mauna Loa and Hurricane Lane lashing the island with heavy rains and strong winds at the end of August, the park is preparing to reopen and the Island of Hawaii is ready to enter full recovery mode and to regain some normalcy.

In early August, as Kilauea started to calm but before the hurricane hit, University of Hawaii, Hilo Department of Geography and Environmental Science professor Mark Kimura estimated the disruptions caused by Kilauea resulted in the loss of roughly 35,000 potential visitors and $50 million in potential tourism expenditure. Using projections in part based on loss of tourism on Kauai after the devastating Hurricane Iniki in 1992, Kimura estimated the eventual total loss in tourism expenditure to be $200 million.

"As was the case for Hurricane Iniki, the recovery process takes time even if the natural event ended today," Kimura noted.

His study used visitor statistics for May and June, and recently released July numbers from the Hawaii Tourism Authority confirm that numbers for Hawaii Island continue to lag.

While total visitor arrivals were up more than 5%, and Oahu, Kauai and Maui all saw year over year increases in visitor arrivals and spending for the month of July, visitation to Hawaii Island was down 13% and visitors spending fell 7% in comparison to July 2017.

"We are confident HTA's release of more than $2 million in emergency funding to support targeted marketing programs by Hawaii Tourism United States and Hawaii Tourism Japan promoting travel to the island of Hawaii will help reverse this downward trend," HTA president and CEO George D. Szigeti said in a statement. "We anticipate seeing the pace of bookings for the island of Hawaii to again rise and become more in line with what is being reported by Oahu, Maui County and Kauai."

Kilauea's latest eruption began May 3 with lava flowing continuously until Aug. 6. The affected Puna area, in the southeast corner of the island comprises one percent of the island of Hawaii, which is larger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined.

"The island of Hawaii is immense and there is so much for visitors to see, do and discover beyond the limited area where the lava flows occurred," said Ross Birch, executive director for the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. "Our tourism partners island-wide will ensure travelers have a marvelous experience on an island that has unmatched characteristics, attractions and geography."

The USGS and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory are reporting that sulfur dioxide emissions at Kilauea summit and in the Lower East Rift Zone in Puna, where lava flows were occurring, have fallen drastically since the start of August and are at their lowest combined level in more than a decade.

"After three months of continuous lava flows, we are cautiously hopeful this cessation in activity becomes permanent," Szigeti said. The island is safe to visit, the air quality is good and, by coming here, travelers will be supporting community economies and helping residents with their recovery."

Now, recovery and rehab efforts are in full swing. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is in the middle of damage assessment and repairs, making progress toward a partial reopening on Sept. 22, National Public Lands Day, park officials announced this week.

The vast majority of the park, everything but the Kahuki Unit, has been closed ever since Kilauea, which had been continuously erupting since 1983, went into overdrive in early May.

As of last week, 32 buildings and 20 miles of trails had been inspected and assessed and a team of engineers from the Federal Highway Administration is scheduled to review park roads on Sept. 10.

For the first time in many years, there is no molten lava to see in the park. The recent eruption saw the disappearance of the summit lava lake and lava flows from Puu Oo have ceased, according to park officials. The Jagger Museum, adjacent to the Halemaumau Crater, one of the top park attractions, now sits on a highly unstable cliff and will not reopen. There is discussion of moving some of features and exhibits to a visitor center in the Pahoa area.

The park is planning to reopen several areas, including Kilauea Visitor Center, Crater Rim Trail between Volcano House and Kilauea Military Camp, Sulphur Banks Trail, Crater Rim Drive to Steam Vents, Devastation Trail and Puu Puai, Crater Rim Drive to Keanakakoi Crater, for pedestrians and bicyclists only, and Chain of Craters Road. The Volcano Art Center Gallery and Kilauea Military Camp also plan to open on Sept. 22, while limited services may be available at Volcano House. There is no drinking water available in the park, and all other areas should be presumed closed. The park has also set up a recovery webpage with updates and photos.

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