While state and county officials have stepped up efforts to get residents out of Lower Puna’s lava-ridden neighborhoods, tourism officials are pushing them to create viewing areas where tourists can watch the dramatic fissure action.
The Kilauea Volcano eruption that began in Puna’s Leilani Estates subdivision May 3 has put on a fearsome and fiery show. So far, more than 20 fissures have opened spewing toxic gases and sending molten lava into the ocean. It’s left destruction in the Leilani Estates, Lanipuna Gardens, Kapoho Beach Lots and Vacationland subdivisions — and covered over beautiful Kapoho Bay, a popular hideaway.
More than 600 homes have been destroyed. While the lava has been destructive, it’s also provided a rare chance to see nature’s fury. Ross Birch, Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau executive director, said tourism officials know there’s lava-viewing demand because tourists have gotten arrested for illegal access attempts. State Department of Land and Natural Resources officers cited a New York couple in late May for loitering and refusal to evacuate during a pending disaster. They also issued three citations to a boat owner who had tied up a vessel at the closed Pohoiki Boat Ramp.
County, state and visitor industry officials are discussing opening fissure areas to public viewing to help curb lava- related tourist arrests and to stimulate tourism, which seems to be down mainly because Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is two-thirds closed. An access location or model hasn’t been determined, but Birch said planners might use Mauna Kea summit’s restrictive visitation policies as a guide. Lava-viewing access could start from county, state or private property that won’t infringe on affected neighborhoods, he said. Portions of vacated neighborhoods could eventually become viewing areas, Birch said.
“We don’t want people watching people’s houses burning, out of respect for privacy and safety concerns. On the other hand, history is being made, and we know that people want to watch,” he said.
Increasing lava-viewing access is part of a major push to get state tourism past the global headlines that suggest Hawaii island’s got troubles aplenty — “lava bombs” are flying, jungles are ablaze, there’s “toxic gas” and the volcano might “spew fridge-sized” rocks. That, coupled with a $500,000 emergency marketing infusion from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Norwegian Cruise Line’s decision to return to the Big Isle, is expected to help offset tens of millions in expected losses.
While arrivals from the U.S. and Japan to the Big Island were up in May and June, business is projected to drop about 10 to 20 percent from July forward. But George D. Szigeti, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO, said there’s still time to offset future losses.
“This is a good example of how fragile the tourism industry can be. Releasing the emergency funds wasn’t a tough sell,” Szigeti said. “The dip wasn’t as severe as originally thought, but we know that we can’t take our eyes off of the ball. Down the road, if we do find an alternative lava-viewing area, I know it would pique the interest of … global travelers.”
Eric Takahata, managing director for Hawaii Tourism Japan, said the agency plans to use HTA’s $250,000 infusion to launch social media campaigns, participate in marketing co-ops with travel partners and work with county and state officials to find substitutes for lost lava- related activities.
While Japanese travelers aren’t particularly sensitive to volcanic activity, since they have volcanoes in Japan, some are beginning to change their travel plans because they don’t want to visit if they can’t see Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park or lava, Takahata said.
Birch said closures of the park and other lava-related activities also played a role in NCL’s decision to temporarily stop port calls.
“NCL was afraid that passengers would want to see it and would find a way to do it on their own even if it was illegal,” he said.
U.S. travelers seem to be more cautious about the fiery flows. A survey of the 40,000 U.S. travel sellers in the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau’s database found that nearly 70 percent of respondents had gotten calls and inquiries from clients about the volcanic activity. While only about 10 percent of respondents noted cancellations, approximately 35 percent were concerned about a slowdown in future bookings, mostly on Hawaii island with some lesser losses on Oahu, Kauai and Maui.
Jay Talwar, HVCB chief marketing officer, said the extra $250,000 marketing allotment that it got from HTA will fund a social media campaign, #exporeislandofhawaii, which will address misconceptions about Hawaii island and highlight the breadth of opportunities available. HVCB also will focus distribution of paid social ads to mobile devices of Hawaii island visitors, Talwar said. HVCB also will target marketing to travelers who have recently visited the Big Island pages on gohawaii.com, he said.
HVCB also is supporting a June 18 event where media organizations across the country will have access via satellite to a Hawaii volcano expert answering questions from the lmiloa Astronomy Center. Talwar said video from different locations will be available to show Hawaii island is “open for business.”
“A big part of our program will focus on sharing factual information. If people are on the fence about travel to Hawaii and aren’t getting the correct information, our concern is that they will make a decision to postpone,” Talwar said. “We’ll address their concerns. We’ll also continue to look for people who value travel and will travel regardless of the economy or what’s going on in the world.”
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