Hawaii volcano takes a toll on Big Island’s economy
Lodging, tours, cruises are suffering
PAHOA, Hawaii – Fears sparked by international headlines about lava flows, evacuations and a potential massive volcanic eruption on the Big Island are prompting tour operators and visitors to find other destinations.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Hawaiibased Pride of America on Tuesday skipped a call to Hilo, the island’s largest town, and will skip a stop Thursday on the other side of the island at Kailua-Kona. The 2,186-passenger ship remained at sea and will instead spend an extra day on Maui, the next island over.
The cancellations come a week after Royal Caribbean dropped a call in Hilo scheduled for its 2,143-passenger Radiance of Seas.
And it’s not just cruise ship passengers who are taking a pass. Lodging and tour bookings are down 50% for May to July, said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau.
Hotels and authorities are desper- ately trying to reassure guests the Big Island is safe. They point out that the island is as big as Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and the lava flows are more than 30 miles away from most tourist areas.
“When this is over, I’ll be surprised if more than 10 miles are affected,” County Mayor Harry Kim said.
Although the eruptions and evacuations have made news, the vast majority of life is unaffected on the Big Island: Schools are open, the sun is shining and golfers are putting away. Tourists stroll the shore in Hilo as the waves gently roll in from the Pacific; poke restaurants are offering fresh-caught fish and locally roasted coffee.
“When this is over, I’ll be surprised if more than 10 miles are affected.”
County Mayor Harry Kim
But the survey of lodging and tour operators revealed the unsettling news that visitors are looking elsewhere.
“That’s truly the concerning part,” Birch said. “It’s kind of scary to be so off pace.”
Cruise ship passengers regularly board buses in port for the hour-long ride to marvel at the steam rising from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Halema‘uma‘u Crater before wandering the streets of Hilo, shopping at the farmers market or the jewelry stores downtown.
Authorities closed the majority of the park May 11 over fears that an eruption could send a plume of steam, gas and ash soaring above the park and rain car-size boulders as much as a mile away.
On Tuesday, the volcano began belching a column of ash more than 2 miles high — the most vigorous eruption in 12 days — and a steam-driven explosion is considered likely. A lava flow has been destroying homes and displacing residents in the Leilani Estates neighborhood, about an hour’s drive away.
Health officials have warned that toxic gases pose the biggest threat, and paper masks won’t protect against dangerous sulfur dioxide, which can cause respiratory distress. Despite the major eruption Tuesday, trade winds were blowing gases away from major population centers.
Clerks at several hotels in Hilo said stays have been declining since guests were shaken by a volcano-related magnitude-6.9 earthquake May 3, when the eruption began.
The Big Island draws nearly 9 million visitors a year, and an estimated 2 million of them visit the national park containing Kilauea, peering over the caldera’s rim to see steam and gas escaping from the Halema‘uma‘u Crater.
Those visitors contribute an estimated $200 million a year to the island, the National Park Service said — the equivalent of nearly $500,000 every day. The closure and lava flows have forced tour companies to divert their coach trips and guided hikes elsewhere or close operations entirely.
There is one bright spot for visitors: The popular helicopter lava tours are running full-tilt, with choppers “hot-loading” each new group of passengers without shutting off their engines.
Among those riding with Paradise Helicopters from the Hilo airport this week were Mikhail Alexseev and his 80year-old mother, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who came to the island to celebrate Alekseyeva’s birthday earlier this year. Alexseev said he booked the trip several months in advance and decided the risk wasn’t that high. With the park closed, they decided to spring for the helicopter ride, which can cost upward of $350 each.
The chopper tours take passengers over the current lava flows, although at more than 4,000 feet. They are required to avoid the Kilauea area itself because of concerns about ash and a potential explosion, but the lava overflights give passengers an eagle’s-eye view of the destruction and birth of new land.
“It’s Mother Nature showing just such an amazing manifestation,” Alexseev said with a smile. “This was the highlight.”
Golfers play in the shadow of an ash plume from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on Tuesday.
Tourists gather to take photos of an eruption Tuesday that sent a column of ash more than 2 miles above Kilauea volcano.