Hawaii vol­cano takes a toll on Big Is­land’s econ­omy

Lodg­ing, tours, cruises are suf­fer­ing

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - USA TO­DAY Trevor Hughes

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.”

MARIO TAMA/GETTY IM­AGES

Golfers play in the shadow of an ash plume from the Ki­lauea vol­cano on Hawaii's Big Is­land on Tues­day.

TREVOR HUGHES/USA TO­DAY

Tourists gather to take pho­tos of an erup­tion Tues­day that sent a col­umn of ash more than 2 miles above Ki­lauea vol­cano.

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