THIRD OF 6 PARTS
VOLCANO, HAWAII >> Hot lava can be quite viscous, and so is Hawaii island’s tourism recovery a year after worldwide images of Kilauea’s volcanic eruption began deterring vacationers.
It’s been nine months since the eruption ceased after covering 6,000 acres in Puna and destroying more than 700 homes. It’s also been eight months since the prior No. 1 statewide tourist attraction — Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park — reopened. Yet, visitor arrivals are only creeping back toward pre-eruption levels, prolonging economic pain for many businesses and workers in the state’s biggest industry.
“We took a gut-check as an island,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. “Tourists are not returning as fast as we wished they would be.”
In the first four months of last year, before lava burst from fissures in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, visitor arrivals on the island were up 11% over a 2017 record, according to state data.
The eruption ran from May to August, and the harsh tourism decline hit in July.
Visitor arrivals fell 12% in the last half of 2018 over the year-earlier period, representing a 23-percentage- point swing despite tourism industry efforts to convince prospective visitors that Hawaii island was safe during the eruption, which was active only in a relatively small, isolated area of the county.
For all of 2018 the decline in arrivals was only 2.5%. But the island had the only decrease in the state, which saw visitor arrivals rise 6% last year.
The drop might sound minor, but a bigger negative trend persists and some tourism businesses that laid off workers last year still haven’t seen much rebound.
Taking a beating
“Last year was a year we could do without,” said Keith De La Cruz, who has managed the Hilo Farmers Market for 20 years.
De La Cruz estimates that during the eruption, tourist traffic at the market, which operates daily in downtown Hilo, fell by 30% to 40%. Eight months later he figures that maybe only a quarter to a third of that lost business has returned.
Big Island visitor arrivals for the first three months of this year are down 9% compared with the same period last year, suggesting that recovery remains bogged down.
This drawn-out tourism weakness isn’t linked only to the volcano. Hawaii island also suffered impacts from Hurricane Lane in August and the 35-day partial federal government shutdown in December and January.
“It was a left hook, upper cut, roundhouse and a big kick,” De La Cruz said.
Birch of the visitors bureau noted that statewide tourism growth may be easing, and Hawaii island tends to be the first to feel slowdowns and the last to pull out of them. So any broad Hawaii tourism softness would likely mean an even longer recovery for the Big Island.
In the next few months, a $2.5 million “big push” marketing campaign for Hawaii island that includes a West Coast bus tour should be ready to roll out. Still, a benefit from this and other efforts can’t come soon enough.
At the Ohelo Cafe restaurant in Volcano village near the national park, chef Skyler Doreste said business last year dropped off about 35% and necessitated an equivalent staff reduction. And though one employee was recently rehired, Doreste is concerned full recovery might take a couple of years.
“We’ve definitely struggled,” he said.
The village and national park around the Kilauea Volcano summit endured a flurry of earthquakes last year while lava flowed about 20 miles away in Puna. Roughly 60,000 quakes were recorded and contributed to keeping many visitors away.
Vale Pili, sales associate at The Volcano Store in the village, said tourist traffic at the convenience store cratered by 90% last year when the park was closed. Now it’s still down 50%.
“It was a massive downturn,” Pili said. “We were expecting a more rapid return to how things were.”
Average occupancy at Kilauea Lodge during the first three months of this year was about 70%, according to General Manager Janet Coney. That’s up from 40% to 50% during the eruption but well below the usual 90% or more during normal times in recent years.
National park challenges
Operators of businesses linked to tourism are grateful Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is open, but the park also is challenged with recovery and isn’t as strong a tourism magnet and economic engine as it was previously.
Just over 2 million visitors entered the park in 2017, which topped the 1.95 million people who went to Pearl Harbor.
An economic study said HVNP visitors in 2017 spent $166 million in communities near the park, supported 2,020 jobs in the local area and had a $222 million cumulative benefit to the local economy.
But last year the visitor count tumbled 45% to 1.1 million. Much of the decline was due to the park being closed for 134 days largely because of earthquakes that damaged trails, roads, buildings, water pipes and more.
HVNP partially reopened Sept. 22, and through the end of last year, more trails, backcountry areas and the Volcano House restaurant inside the park reopened.
Still, visits were 30% to 35% lower in the first three months of this year compared with the same period last year.
“We’re still down but coming back,” said HVNP spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane.
She said 90% of the 520-square-mile park is open, including the visitors center, two-thirds of the popular Kilauea Iki trail, the Steam Vents area, Sulphur Banks area and Devastation Trail.
But the park’s two most popular draws — the Jaggar Museum, which provided an outdoor overlook of the caldera and Halemaumau Crater, and the Thurston Lava Tube — remain closed along with some trails or portions of trails.
The damaged museum and overlook are in an unstable area above a cliff where a major rockfall occurred just last week. Thurston Lava Tube is expected to reopen following a laser- mapping survey.
One other absence is the nighttime glow of a lava lake at the bottom of the crater that drew tourists for dinner and other evening activities. The lake disappeared last year in a prelude to lava outbreaks that began May 3.
However, the eruption produced new features to see at the park, including a bigger bank of sulfur deposits in the Kilauea caldera where steam still rises out of cracks in the ground. And the absence of gasses released by magma that used to produce vog has made for clearer air and views. Even some trails long closed because of poor air quality are being reopened.
Big new attraction
U.S. Geological Survey scientists said in an advisory last month that they think Kilauea’s next eruption is most likely to happen in the caldera within a few years.
For now the biggest change in the park is the size of Halemaumau Crater, which used to be 250 feet deep and home to the lava lake that sometimes gently topped its banks. After repeated collapses that shot ash plumes up to 30,000 feet into the sky during the eruption, the crater within the caldera became a 2,000-foot-deep abyss.
“Most people are having a pretty great time when they’re here, even with the absence of the lava lake,” Ferracane said. “This is an incredible national park. It’s a World Heritage Site.”
A sampling of visitors last week agreed.
“I was blown away by how large it is, how big that crater is,” said Tom Shore, a visitor from Detroit who planned a weeklong trip to the Big Island with his wife, two children and mother-in-law specifically to see the park.
“It’s stunning,” said Shore’s wife, Michelle. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Rainer Muller, a first-time Hawaii visitor from Germany, called HVNP gorgeous as he descended a trail on a ranger-guided “Into the Volcano” hike.
“It would be great if you see (liquid) lava,” Muller said. “But it’s OK.”
On a helicopter tour, Tom Quirk from Wisconsin saw a lot of the hardened lava that flowed about 8 miles from fissure 8 in Leilani Estates to the ocean. “It was awesome,” he said.
Quirk, his wife and two friends were on their first trip to Hawaii, and flew from Oahu to the Big Island just for the day to see the aftermath of the eruption on a tour that included a visit to the park.
“We wanted to see the volcano,” he said.