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Tourism industry fears repercussions after erroneous missile warning

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Gov. David Ige and Maj. Gen. Joe Logan spoke at today’s press conference at Civil Defense headquarters at Diamond Head.

This morning’s false alarm placing Hawaii under threat of a ballistic missile attack was short-lived, but some fear the repercussions to Hawaii’s lead tourism industry could be longer term.

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 pushed the wrong button.

Luckily for the state, the false alarm only lasted about 40 minutes and it occurred on a Saturday morning instead of peak hours on a busy weekday.

The timing helped retailers like Royal Hawaiian Center, which didn’t open until 10 a.m., and golf events like the PGA Sony Open, which began it’s third round at 11 a.m. Nonetheless, there was plenty of anxiety to go around.

PGA players in town for the Sony Open were among the anxious twitter and Facebook messages that went out this morning.

Steve Wheatcroft’s 8:14 a.m. tweet said “So……. this can’t be good. Everyone was freaking out in the hotel.”

JJ Spaun’s 8:26 a.m. tweet said he was waiting it out “in a basement under the hotel. Barely any service. Can you send confirmed message over radio or tv.”

John Peterson sent out a tweet at 8:28 a.m. saying that he was “under mattresses in the bathtub with my wife, baby and in laws. Please lord let this bomb threat not be real.”

Mark Rolfing, NBC Golf Channel TV analyst, said he was doing a live radio show from the media center at the Waialae Country Club when the false threat occurred. He quickly joined about 40 others in the facility’s locker room.

“The people were afraid. They were terrified — not so much the adults, it was the children,” Rolfing said. “A lot of activity at the club and the Kahala Hotel was disrupted. We were gearing up for a golf tournament and a late morning wedding was getting ready to start. A lot of activity got thrown into this chaotic scene of people not knowing exactly what to do, but having only 15 minutes to do it.”

Rolfing said it remains to be seen how the morning’s events will impact the tournament — anxiety could throw some scores, especially for players who aren’t in the lead, he said.

“It will be harder for guys who aren’t in the lead. Let’s say you barely made the cut, that meant you teed off closer to the alert than the lead players,” Rolfing said.

Athletes and public personalities weren’t the only tourists affected by the unfortunate exercise. Hawaiian Airlines sent out a message advising its stations to deplane passengers. The message was retracted in minutes, but some passengers may have been inconvenienced.

At the Sheraton Waikiki, where about 3,000 visitors were staying today, 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 today’s events on tourism, but that future cancellations are a possibility.

Mufi Hannemann, Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association president and CEO, said he’s canvassing the organization’s 700 members to determine the short-term 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 kimchi’,” Hannemann said. “Hawaii has always prided itself on being one of the safest, most secure places to visit. 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 the state will have to work together to assure residents and visitors alike that the incident won’t be repeated and that lessons were learned. Hannemann said problems have been identified beyond the false alert.

“The information was very inconsistent,”Hannemann said. “People were notified by cell phones 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.”

Hannemann said he’s also concerned that the false alarm could dampen response to a “real deal.”

“We want to make sure that people don’t get complacent and continue to take this seriously,” he said.

Goerge Szigeti, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO, said during a press conference this afternoon that he has reached out to industry stakeholders to make sure that the incident doesn’t happen again.

While the industry is assessing the impacts, Szigeti said he wants it made clear that “Hawaii is open for business and is still perceived as the most safe and welcoming destination in the world.”

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