False alarm trig­gers mass panic; of­fi­cials wor­ried tourism could take a hit

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Al­li­son Schae­fers as­chae­fers@starad­ver­tiser.com

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.

CINDY ELLEN RUS­SELL / CRUSSELL@STARAD­VER­TISER.COM

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.

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