False alarm triggers mass panic; officials worried tourism could take a hit
California visitors Danny Stewart and his girlfriend, Julianne Jouglard, were on a quest for malasadas when they saw the emergency ballistic missile alert that derailed their Hawaii vacation Saturday.
“It hit on our phone and we were like, ‘No way,’” Stewart said. “Then we started hearing all the beeps from all the visitors with phones around us. It was surreal. We thought, ‘Oh, my God, we are going to die.’”
The panicked couple sought shelter in a hotel underground loading zone. Then they called their families to say goodbye, held each other and prayed. Despite their harrowing experience, the couple said they don’t plan to cancel the September trip to Maui that they had previously booked. But some members of the state’s visitor industry worry that Saturday’s events and all the negative publicity generated from them could have a dampening impact on tourism.
The story made headlines around the globe, leading national and international newscasts, including ABC News and cable networks, and was the lead story on BBC.com.
North Korea’s months of posturing were made all too real to the tens of thousands of people across the islands, many of them tourists, who were plunged into uncertainty when a state employee made an error. Luckily for the state, the false alarm lasted only about 40 minutes and it occurred on a Saturday morning instead of peak hours on a busy weekday.
That’s not to say the unfortunate exercise didn’t create a heavy tourism impact. On any given day there are 240,000 tourists statewide, with some 100,000 on Oahu. While some managed to miss the event entirely, there was plenty of anxiety and inconvenience to go around.
Hawaiian Airlines deplaned passengers on two flights, said Hawaiian Air spokeswoman Ann Botticelli. Altogether, 11 of the carrier’s flights were delayed and other flights were held until the alarm was declared false, she said. State Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara said employees at state airports were instructed to come inside and, when warranted, travelers were directed to shelter in place. The false alarm didn’t cause significant impacts or delays with the exception of the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, where a few hundred travelers had to go through Kona’s TSA checkpoint twice, Sakahara said.
“There were some delays in Kona, but from my understanding, it caught up rather quickly,” he said.
At the Sheraton Waikiki, where about 3,000 visitors were staying Saturday, guests were briefly evacuated to the property’s corridors, which are the hardest walls in the building, said Kelly Sanders, Marriott Hawaii area general manager. “We didn’t have any medical issues at the hotel, but we had some very panicked people,” Sanders said. “There were tears and families hugging themselves. It was a very emotional 20 minutes. We were very lucky that nothing happened and it was a false alarm, but it does speak at a broader point to the geopolitical atmosphere in which we are living.” Sanders said it’s too soon to tell the longer-term impacts of Saturday’s events on tourism, but that future cancellations are a possibility.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association, said he’s canvassing the organization’s 700 members to determine the shortterm and longer-term ramifications of the false alarm.
“The only good thing about it was that it wasn’t real — if that had happened, we really would have been in deep kim chee,” Hannemann said. “The question we have to ask is, does this erode the confidence that people have in coming to Hawaii?” Hannemann said the incident was “embarrassing” and that the state and industry must assure residents and visitors alike that the incident won’t be repeated and that lessons were learned. “The information was very inconsistent,” Hannemann said. “People were notified by cellphones and, depending on the service, not everyone got the message. When information started circulating that the threat was false, people weren’t immediately able to verify the information.”
Unite Here Local 5, a labor union representing thousands of Hawaii hotel workers, said members in various hotels are questioning whether the properties had made adequate plans, said Paola Rodelas, Local 5 spokeswoman. “Overall, it seemed no one knew what to do,” Rodelas said. “Some departments kept working. Others were told to go to their loved ones.”
George Szigeti, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO, said during a Saturday news conference that he wants it made clear that “there is no cause for travelers with trips already booked to Hawaii or considering a vacation in the islands to change their plans.” “Hawaii continues to be the safest, cleanest and most welcoming travel destination in the world and the alarm created today by the false alert does not change that at all,” he said.
The weekend crowd was a bit smaller than usual at the Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon in Waikiki after Saturday’s ballistic missile scare. Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO George Szigeti said Saturday that there was no cause for travelers to change their plans. “Hawaii continues to be the safest, cleanest and most welcoming travel destination in the world and the alarm created today by the false alert does not change that at all,” he said.