FIRST OF TWO PARTS
KAILUA-KONA >> News of a slowdown in the 3-month-old Kilauea volcanic eruption has brought a glimmer of relief to the Big Island’s tourism industry.
“When we heard that the lava was slowing on Monday, my wife did the happy dance on our deck,” said Kenneth Embree, who operates a Kohala Coast vacation rental with his wife, Angelisa. “We are hoping everything will return to normal since the volcanic activity has calmed down quite a bit.”
Fissure 8, which pumped out a river of lava for nearly three months, remained quiet Tuesday. Geologists have warned that the pause could be temporary, but the tourism industry is hoping that’s not the case.
The eruption and the closure of most of the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park led to a drop in tourist arrivals and spending which is affecting many businesses.
Hawaii island lost 100 hospitality and leisure jobs between May and June, the only county in the state to post tourism job losses for that period.
The island lost an estimated 38,000 in potential visitors and $50 million in potential tourism spending in May and June, according to a recent study by an affiliate faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. It could take the Big Island almost five months to recover fully from the drop in tourism if the eruption’s pause becomes permanent, and that would leave the county with potential losses of $200 million, the study said.
The lava’s impact on tourism has been felt by many in the industry, and not just on the Hilo side of the island.
Mimi Bergstrom quit her job at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay two weeks ago because the eruption led to a reduction in work hours and she wasn’t eligible to file unemployment to supplement her paychecks.
“After Kilauea volcano started erupting in May, there wasn’t any work for the whole month of June. The first two weeks of July, I was scheduled for two shifts per week down from five per week. Then there wasn’t anything again,” said Bergstrom, who lives in Holualoa above Kona. “Some of my former co-workers also have quit, and others have taken second jobs.”
Faced with a choice between continuing to work at reduced hours without supplemental unemployment or leave, Bergstrom chose to look for other work.
She also has seen the impact of the tourism slowdown spread to other businesses.
“You can tell it’s slower. There’s parking available at Costco,” Bergstrom said. “People are worried about paying for basic necessities like food. When I went to get my oil changed at Kona Kwik Lube, they said they are starting to see it impact their business, too. Some people feel like they don’t have the money even for important things like car maintenance.”
Jessica Ferracane, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman, said more than 2 million visitors spent $166 million, or roughly $455,000 per day, in communities near the park in 2017. Since most of the park has been closed due to the eruption, nearby businesses have lost an estimated $39 million.
The estimate doesn’t even take into account how many people “intending to visit Hawaii Volcanoes may have modified their travel plans during the current Kilauea eruption and partial park closure,” Ferracane said.
It also falls short in measuring tourism impacts in Hawaii island communities, like Kona and the Kohala Coast, that are at least a couple of hours from the park. Stephanie Donoho, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association (KCRA), said Kohala Coast properties lost more than $25 million in hotel room revenue in May and June alone.
The decline also is affecting the isle’s vacation rental industry. Roughly 20 percent of bookings on Airbnb have been canceled for the Big Island since May 4. Much of that drop is due to Airbnb’s effort to cooperate with the county’s vacation rental moratorium in Puna, but it also includes results from the island as a whole.
Kansas Henderson, hotel manager at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, said losses from even one booking can be significant.
“We have a lot of multigenerational travelers among our repeat guests. It’s usually not just one couple occupying one room for seven or more nights. We could lose more than 20 nights with the cancellation of one single family group,” Henderson said.
Art and Maryanne Leupold, an Orange County, Calif., couple, didn’t cancel their recent eight-night trip to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, where they booked seven rooms for 16 people. The family also spent a significant amount outside the resort.
Maryanne Leupold said, “On TV it’s just unbelievable what’s happening. But we have friends that come here frequently. They reported back that it was OK, and we decided to come. We’ve been coming so long the children consider it home.”
Kohala Coast visitors tend to be among Hawaii island’s highest spenders, so when they don’t show up, it’s a hard economic hit.
The average daily rate Kohala Coast visitors paid for a hotel room through June was $387, which is more than 42 percent above the average daily rate paid by visitors to Hawaii island as a whole.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel room rates typically start at about $500 per night. The breakfast buffet at the on-site Manta restaurant, where the Leupold family met each morning, runs about $35 per person. The family also dined at other resort restaurants, including the Hau Tree, where dinner items run from $10 to $30 each, and the Copper Bar, where dinner items range from $6 to $38.
They bought takeout pizza from a local establishment. They also dined at Tommy Bahama, where dinner items range from $10 to $44, and McDonald’s.
They played golf at the resort, where greens fees range from $179 to $549, and at the Nanea Golf Club, an exclusive private course near the Four Seasons Hualalai. They spent $100 per person horseback riding in Waimea and booked surfing packages at Kahalu‘u Bay Surf and Sea, where group surf lessons start at about $100. And, before they left, they hired David O Baldwin Photography to capture their picture-perfect vacation.
Howard and Bonnie Corman, who have vacationed along the Kohala Coast at least 30 times since 1969, also kept their Mauna Kea Beach Hotel vacation plans.
The couple was accompanied by their daughter Kimberly Samson, their son-in-law David Samson and their three grandchildren. While the family tends to spend much of their vacation on property, they often dine elsewhere. During this stay they ate at the Kona Commons Shopping Center’s Ultimate Burger, where burgers and fries start at about $11.
They also dined at Merriman’s in Waimea, where dinner items range from $9 to $64. They ate at Pueo’s Osteria in Waikoloa, where a 12-inch pizza runs about $20 and veal Parmesan is $38. They booked a table at the Residents’ Beach House at the Hualalai Resort, where main courses run from $28 for chicken to $58 for a whole grilled Keahole lobster.
“It was empty at the Residents’ Beach House. It’s never empty for dinner,” Bonnie Corman said.
Howard Corman said, “People that live on (Hawaii) island have told us activities are way down. The planes are coming in half empty.”
“There’s simply no reason for the slowdown. Somebody has to cut the negativity and tell people that there’s nothing wrong,” Corman said. “Look at this place. It’s just beautiful, and it doesn’t look any different than it usually looks.”
LEISURE AND HOSPITALITY JOBS BY STATE AND COUNTY
Hawaii island was the only major Hawaiian Island to post tourism job losses from May to June.
MAY / JUNE / DIFFERENCE
State 128,100 128,900 800
Honolulu 77,200 77,700 500
Hawaii County 14,900 14,800 -100
Maui County 25,700 26,100 400
Kauai 10,300 10,300 0
source: Hawaii DLIR