Kona/Kohala CoastKona/Kohala Coast
KAILUA-KONA >> Alexander Hamilton and Kayla Po were planning to stay at a Leilani Estates vacation rental on their first visit to Hawaii island but set their course for Kona after images of the lava plumes coming out of fissure 8 made it all the way to their home in Manila.
They said they evaluated travel conditions daily after the Kilauea Volcano eruption began May 3 and were disappointed that Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park was mostly closed. Ultimately, they made the decision to re-book in Kona, which is about 100 miles from Kilauea Volcano’s fiery flows. And they don’t regret it.
“The air quality in Kona is excellent. It’s way better than Manila,” Hamilton said. “I’m glad we came. We booked Paradise Helicopters, and we saw the lava flow in its entirety. Where else can you see that? This has to be one of my top five destinations.”
The couple said they believed the timing of their Hawaii island trip offered a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That’s a message Hawaii island’s visitor industry hopes to spread, as some potential visitors are reportedly putting off travel plans to Hawaii island until the park reopens or they can see lava from land.
The lava flow slowed Sunday and was still quiet Tuesday. If the pause continues, the visitor industry may be able to reverse the downward trend of the last couple of months.
When the lava was flowing, the only way to view it was via helicopter or a permitted lava boat tour. That discouraged some visitors from coming. Others feared the air quality, earthquakes and other volcano-related hazards.
Such visitor concerns are largely exaggerated, officials said. Still, Hawaii island’s visitor industry continues to battle a tourism dampening that extends all the way to Kona and the Kohala Coast, which are hours away from fissure 8.
While Hawaii island tourism is still up year over year, it experienced a 5 percent drop in visitor arrivals in June. Hotel occupancy also dropped in June by its largest amount in almost five years. Hawaii island’s occupancy rate fell 6 percentage points to nearly 69 percent in June, according to data released by Tennessee-based STR, which tracks hotel performance across the state.
Hotel properties in the Kohala Coast resort region, which are about as far away from the lava activity as San Diego is from Los Angeles, experienced an even more dramatic June occupancy drop of nearly 11 percentage points to nearly 64 percent.
Jahn Freitag, senior vice president at STR, said that’s because “people are very poor at geography. I’m afraid when people see the news and think Hawaii has a problem that they are staying away. It’s the same thing that happened in the Caribbean after the hurricanes.”
Such softening typically affects higher-end properties more, Freitag said.
“If your market is a little higher-end, you’ll feel the downturn a little more. If it’s a wedding trip or an incentive trip, people don’t want to take the risk even when there’s no risk,” he said.
Getting the word out
Tourism has dampened at some of the eight luxury resort hotels and seven golf courses that make up a 20-mile stretch of the luxury Kohala Coast. The Kohala Coast Resort Association has hired Oahu-based Bennett Group and Los Angeles-based Murphy O’Brien to implement a campaign designed to inform visitors that the volcanic activity on the other side of the island hasn’t affected their destination, which feature clear air, sunny skies and hoards of non-lava-related activities. Also, they say, it’s a great time for kamaaina to book local discounts since more space has opened.
Kona is trying to publicize a similar message, said Jennifer Nobrega, an Expedia local experts concierge at the Royal Sea Cliff Kona.
“In the beginning the media coverage was so misleading. If you believed it, of course, you wouldn’t want to come. Once we got them on the phone, we were able to explain that we are far away from the activity,” Nobrega said. “We were able to assure those that wanted to see lava that they could still do it by boat or helicopter and that they don’t have to see lava to have a great time here. We have the clearest water and youngest reef of any of the Hawaiian Islands; we have manta rays, Mauna Kea; and you can do stuff here that you can’t do anywhere else. This is an amazing island.”
Word is getting out. The Royal Kona Resort was so packed July 24 for its Voyagers of the Pacific Luau that some guests had to park illegally until parking spots opened. On July 25 the Outrigger-managed Royal Sea Cliff Kona condominiums had a high occupancy, but its general manager, Carol Hanna, said the property’s booking pace is losing some of the significant year-over-year gains that it had banked before the eruption.
“People are hesitant about coming. The national media has not helped. It hasn’t been our friend,” Hanna said. “Even with the softening, we’re still ahead by about 25 percent. It’s not going to be an awful year, but the booking pace has been down about 10 percent every month. It’s not going gangbusters the way it was. “
Still, some west-side properties, especially those on the Kohala Coast, are hurting more than others. On July 25 a row of chairs sat empty in front of the surf at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. While the nearby Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii, was 80 percent occupied Wednesday, the resort’s business has been up and down with the news cycle.
Joan Harvey, Fairmont director of sales and marketing, said the 540-room resort has seen occupancy fall to 50 percent and recently lost 1,000 room-nights when a large group canceled its October trip. In June the property, which employs 600 workers, temporarily cut some housekeeping schedules to four from five days, Harvey said. The drop in demand also has affected some of the community vendors that service the hotel, she said.
Harvey said the pace has started to pick up, and believes transient demand will be strong enough to offset lost group business. Still, the property is expected to finish the year about 20 percent down, she said.
“Last year we beat 2007, our best year. We thought the sky was the limit for 2018. Right through May 3 we were having an amazing year,” Harvey said.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, where repeat visitor business makes up about 60 percent of the clientele, is down about 20 percent, said the property’s hotel manager, Kansas Henderson. That has prompted the hotel to reduce casual employee shifts to six hours from eight hours, Henderson said. It’s also reduced business for the hotel’s vendors, he said.
Craig Anderson, Mauna Kea Resort’s vice president of operations, said all of the hotels on the Kohala Coast felt an immediate impact after the first week of May.
“There were cancellations for May, June and July and a slowdown in bookings. When a property loses 1,000 room nights, that’s about the equivalent of 100 to 125 eight-hour lost shifts for workers. We’ve had about a 20 percent reduction in employee hours from where we were earlier in the year. We are encouraging people to take vacation to supplement work hours,” Anderson said.
Gerald Farm, who lives in Kona and serves as the Fairmont’s senior lead concierge, said the community is feeling the impact.
“It’s having a snowball effect. Pretty much all the hotels and resorts along the coast are showing signs of reduction and are drawing back on force,” Farm said. “Local people are watching spending. It’s worse than a tsunami because we don’t know how long this situation is going to last.”