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Tourist arrivals up on Hawaii island in May despite Kilauea’s eruption

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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / crussell@staradvertiser.com

Spectators at Volcano Golf and Country Club photographed the start of an ash plume billowing out of the Halemaumau crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on May 15. Lava, ash and dangerous gases from Kilauea volcano are causing havoc in parts of the Big Island, but the tourists are still coming.

Despite Kilauea’s worsening volcanic activity, May visitor arrivals are up 25 percent over last year on Hawaii island.

“My theory is that … it’s really hard to back out on something in a last-minute situation,” said said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. “These are our biggest advocates now. The ones who decided to keep their plans and come to the island are the biggest allies. Their social media posts will showcase how great the weather is and how unaffected they truly are by the current volcanic activity. That’s a good testament for showing that it’s absolutely safe to travel to the island.”

The Big Island hasn’t seen the same type of eruption since 1955 when lava pummeled through the area now known as Leilani Estates. The most recent eruption has closed two-thirds of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park due to increase seismic activity, ashfall and steam. Officials are warning the public about the hazards of volcanic ash, toxic sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide and “laze” — or lava haze — when hot lava mixes with cold seawater to produce a plume of steam laced with hydrochloric acid and glass particles.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported today continued eruptions and ground cracking in the Lower East Rift Zone, particularly in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens, as well as high ash emissions at the Kilauea summit, with plumes up to 8,000 feet high. The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency warned residents at a community meeting Tuesday to stop vacation rentals, especially in the lower Puna area.

“It’s not a safe place to bring tourists at this time. It’s too unstable,” a county official said.

Birch said there have been some cancellations and lower booking pace, but tourism officials won’t fully know the affect until the end of June.

The cancellations are “not very many at all” mostly from the Japan market, he said.

“It’s the knee-jerk reaction that we’re finding from those you just can’t talk off the wall who are convinced there are issues and challenges to the island. Those are the ones making the cancellations,” he added. “I don’t think that business is completely lost. The airlines are becoming a little more aggresive with some of their pricing so I have a feeling we’ll be able to recoup some of this.”

Part of the jump in May arrivals is due to a 50 percent increase in air lift over last May. In addition, people coming through to help with relief efforts could be one reason arrivals have been steady.

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