It was just another day in paradise for German tourist Conrad Weber, who is here in the islands to marry the girl of his dreams.
Weber, who will end a three-week trip to Oahu and Hawaii island on May 4, said mounting tensions between the U.S. and North Korea haven’t put a damper on his vacation. Neither has rat lungworm disease, which has been getting lots of negative attention as well.
“We expect this will be an unforgettable trip,” said
Weber, who visited the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument on Monday. “The U.S. is perceived as being very safe. My personal feeling is that there won’t be an attack by North Korea on the U.S. I trust in the responsibility of the leaders.”
Members of Hawaii’s visitor industry and a national tourism security expert say Weber’s reaction is the most common among visitors and potential tourists who have been inundated with weeks of negative news. Stories on the threat of North Korea have run on networks like ABC and CNN.
They’ve also run in publications like the Daily Mail and Breitbart News. A Fox News story Monday talked about Hawaii politicians revisiting emergency attack plans as tensions between the U.S. and North Korea mount. The article mentioned North Korea’s failed weekend attempt to launch a missile to showcase its capabilities; however, it devoted several paragraphs to the “horrors” that would ensue if a missile hit the island chain.
The scary prequel to North Korea tensions are all the national stories surfacing about rat lungworm disease. CNN ran a poignant story about newlyweds contracting rat lungworm disease — “a rare brain parasite” — during their Hawaii honeymoon.
A day before, US News &World Report ran a story about the disease’s spread. The news came from reports that the state Department of Health had confirmed nine cases of rat lungworm, which are caused by parasites found in rats, snails and slugs.
Peter Tarlow, a Texas-
based tourism security
expert, said Hawaii’s struggle with rat lungworm likely has been obscured by the news feed about North Korea and the various United Airlines flaps. The carrier garnered lots of headlines with the recent forcible removal of a doctor from one of its overbooked planes.
“If I’m a tourist right now, my biggest fear about getting on a plane going to Hawaii is that United Airlines might be mean to me,” Tarlow said.
Tarlow, who has consulted on the Olympics and the 2005 disappearance of American teen Natalee Holloway in Aruba, said he doesn’t think relations with North Korea are a major concern for Hawaii tourism.
“I wouldn’t panic. It does appear the president has things well under control, and he’s sent a very strong message with the attack on Syria and the super bomb in Afghanistan. He’s done a very good job in saying, ‘Don’t mess with the U.S.,’” Tarlow said.
But Hawaii’s proximity to North Korea has made it the center of global media reports speculating on the country’s growing nuclear capabilities and its deteriorating relations with the U.S. It’s such a hot topic that Hawaii was mentioned in the White House press briefing Monday.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked, “Political leaders in Hawaii are reviewing plans — emergency plans in case they are attacked. Does the president believe that the level of tension between the United States and North Korea is at the point where we should start reviewing emergency attack plans?”
Spicer said there are military contingency plans in place for attacks. But less than 5,000 miles separate Honolulu and Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. The distance is too close for Pennsylvania visitor Christine McNichol’s comfort.
“I wish I weren’t in Hawaii,” McNichol said Monday. “We are very concerned. If they do anything, this is a bad place to be.”
Charlene Chan, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s director of communications, said the state agency is “not aware of any negative effect the situation in North Korea has had on bookings or travel to Hawaii at this time.”
Chan said HTA is closely monitoring rat lungworm and collaborating with the governor’s office and state Department of Health on information to share with its marketing contractors and travel partners.
“We are not aware of any negative impact (rat lungworm) has had on bookings or travel to Hawaii,” Chan said.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, Hawaii’s largest wholesale travel seller, said he’s not overly concerned with North Korea tensions or rat lungworm.
“Our business is way up in Hawaii,” Richards said. “We’re seeing travel to Hawaii up by double digits through November, and people are booking ahead — that shows that they have confidence in the destination.”
Richards said the threat of military action actually might be working in Hawaii’s favor as U.S. travelers look for closer-to-home destinations.
“Staying close to home is a trend. We’re up double digits to Las Vegas, Orlando and New York, too,” he said.
Richards said Pleasant Holidays isn’t that worried about rat lungworm since the disease, which has been endemic to Hawaii for the past 50 years, typically infects up to nine people annually.
“Hawaii has gotten about nine cases a year for many, many years. This isn’t something that we think will be a deterrent,” he said.