Ross Birch has been executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau for the past five years. The bureau, which changed its name from the Big Island Visitors Bureau in 2016, has been at the forefront of persuading tourists to return to the island following the Kilauea volcano eruptions from May to August. He spoke with cruise editor Tom Stieghorst about those efforts.
Q: How much has Hawaii tourism fallen off this year compared with the previous year?
A: Year to date, we're still ahead of last year. That's because we had a superstrong January through April. It was one of the strongest starts in our history. We saw a bottoming out starting to happen in June, July and August. For the year, we're still ahead, but from a monthly standpoint we're 15% to 20% down from the previous year. So we're really seeing that lag right now. We've seen a drop-off in bookings and haven't quite seen the pick-up come through yet.
Q: Which was more damaging, the Kilauea eruptions or Hurricane Lane?
A: Probably the eruptions were more of a long-term kind of situation. The hurricanes, for us, are really a two- to three-day time period of rescheduling. People are either postponing their trip a couple of days or cutting their trip short a couple of days. It's more of a schedule adjustment that happens when a hurricane comes in, rather than any long-term type of adjustment.
Q: Since 1983 there's been lava flowing from Kilauea, and now there isn't.
A: It's the very first time in 35 years that we've actually had a pause. We call it a pause because we never know when, if or how it may come back.
Q: Don't a certain number of tourists come precisely to see that? Flowing lava?
A: Absolutely. The lava flow's been in our favor for decades now. It's been a great opportunity for people to come and see a 'friendly volcano,' which is what we call it, because it is very friendly to be able to come and observe from a close distance. This time it just happened to come into a neighborhood, which they eventually knew would happen at some point in time. So it wasn't exactly a surprise that this happened. But where it happened was really a challenge for us to still have it as a tourist attraction.
Q: How are you changing your message now that the pause has happened and the lava's stopped flowing? Is there another way to see the volcano now?
A: It's ever-changing. Every day is always different. That's what I've learned being on the island 30 years, every day is a different story with the volcano. Today's story is just coming and observing what has happened through this major eruption that we had. Kilauea has definitely transformed itself, so the crater is something new to look at. And then the new lava flows, we're working on accessibility to see the new lava flows as well.
Q: If a helicopter tour is out of reach economically, how do tourist go about seeing what's happened?
A: We're establishing a location in the Pahoa area where tourists can access the most recent flows. They'll actually be able to take a tour on top of the flow, and then there will be some accessibility through some of the public parks that we have along the ocean, and they'll have an opportunity to go see some of the new black-sand beaches that have been created.
Q: Are you spending any more money on media?
A: The [statewide] Hawaii Tourism Bureau really stepped up for us as an island, both in the U.S. market and in the Japan market. They provided extra funding for a quicker recovery. So there's about $2 million altogether between the two markets that is going to all different areas, into public relations, marketing and into real direct sales, as well.
Q: For agents, is there anything ongoing to educate them about the Island of Hawaii?
A: We have our own destination specialist program. Agents can actually come and experience the island specifically, get educated on it, become a specialist on the state and then island-specific, as well. They'll be able to go online, start the process, get educated from there, and then once they get to a certain level of education on the market, we'll invite them to come and then it's on us for a whole week.