Global headlines suggest Hawaii island’s got troubles aplenty — “lava bombs” are flying, jungles are ablaze, there’s “toxic gas” and the volcano may “spew fridge-sized” rocks.
The dramatic headlines, which really only apply to the Lower Puna region on the east side of the island, are creating a new problem: an islewide tourist downturn the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Sept. 11, 2001.
Two-thirds of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park remained closed Monday. Prior to May 4 the park, which attracted more than 2 million visitors last year and produced more than $166 million in economic benefits, had been looking at having a record 2018.
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Hawaii County Civil Defense officials Saturday ordered all vacation rentals in Lower Puna to cease operations, forcing visitors to find alternate accommodations and adding to tourism industry losses from the Kilauea eruption.
Now the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau is reporting that business at hotels, including the isle’s unaffected west side, are down 50 percent through summer. Cruise ships are canceling port calls, activity providers are cutting back employee hours, airline sales are softening and groups are using federal and state islewide disaster declarations to break contracts.
Jason Cohn, Hawaii Forest & Trail vice president of sales and marketing, said the company, which has offices in Hilo, Kona and Kohala, received email cancellations from 25 family groups Monday. Cohn said the tally, which didn’t include call cancellations, is on top of the losses that the company already sustained when Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park closed, affecting the guides assigned to tours there.
“We were having a banner year, but the headlines are really starting to take their toll,” Cohn said. “We’re off 35 percent in the last two weeks, and our advance bookings are grinding to a halt. We are having trouble getting employees their full hours, and if this goes on we are worried about layoffs. It’s so bad, we are comparing it to 9/11.”
Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said the island is potentially looking at a “lost summer,” with continued slowdowns anticipated.
That’s especially concerning for an island where tourism is the top employer, he said.
“If you look at business applications over the last two years, 90 percent have been tourist-related,” Birch said. “In just a two-week period, I’ve seen east side businesses go from having their best year ever to closing and laying off 10 to 20 people.”
Bodacious offers, a sure sign that demand is down, also are hitting the market. Daniel Chun, a spokesman for Alaska Airlines in Hawaii, said the carrier ran a flash sale advertising $298-round-trip fares over the weekend and plans to offer them again today at 808ne.ws/alaskaair. Travel is good through June 7 to Hawaii island and Kauai, where there were floods last month.
“We are seeing cancellations, and we want to encourage people to look past the misinformation. It sounds like all of Hawaii island is exploding. Coverage about refrigerator-sized boulders is never good, especially if folks are not familiar with the geography of the island,” Chun said. “Our message is do come to Hawaii island; most everything is open and it’s business as usual.”
An announcement Monday from Norwegian Cruise Line that it would not stop in Hawaii island ports this week has only exacerbated the growing tourism crisis. NCL notified Hawaii island businesses Monday that Pride of America, which has a capacity of 2,186 guests, will not call in Hilo on Tuesday and as a result will spend the day at sea. On Wednesday, NCL said Pride of America will not call in Kona, but will add an additional day on Maui and call in Lahaina instead.
“At Norwegian Cruise Line, the safety and security of our guests and crew is our top priority. We have been closely monitoring the adverse conditions impacting the Big Island of Hawaii and are modifying the itinerary of Pride of America to ensure our guests have the best vacation experience possible,” the company said in a statement Monday.
The NCL loss was on top of a volcano-related cancellation last week from Royal Caribbean Cruises, which canceled Radiance of the Seas’ planned stop in Hilo, Cohn said.
Maggie Brown, owner of Body Glove Hawaii, said NCL’s decision not to stop in Kona represented “a big loss of business.”
“We were originally sold out Wednesday,” Brown said. “On average, the cruise ships represent 15 to 20 percent of our entire business.”
During the past 12 years of tendering cruise ships, Brown said, Body Glove Hawaii has transported well over 1 million people into the port of Kona.
Bill Zabolski, owner of Captain Zodiac, said cruise ships make up 20 to 30 percent of his business and are equally important to other owners.
“On Wednesdays when the cruise ships come, our whole town comes alive,” Zabolski said. “We want to remind people that this is a volcanic eruption that has been ongoing since 1983 on the other side of the island and that it affects a small community of a couple thousand people. There are 180,000 people on the island, and we are fine.”