Hawaii's tourism industry gets walloped by relentless volcano

Kilauea volcano has already destroyed houses and hurled "...

Posted: May 15, 2018 9:03 AM
Updated: May 15, 2018 9:03 AM

Kilauea volcano has already destroyed houses and hurled "splatter bombs" into the sky. Now it's wreaking havoc on Hawaii's famed tourism industry.

"The volcano isn't just our No. 1 attraction -- it's the state's No. 1 attraction," said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau.

"So when it shuts down, there's a direct impact on the spending in that area and the island altogether."

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has more than 2 million visitors a year, is closed "due to the possibility of an explosive steam event and ash fall at the summit of K-lauea volcano."

As if that's not scary enough, at least 19 fissures have cracked open on the Earth's surface, oozing molten lava that's torching everything in its path.

About $1.5 million was lost in the first week after the May 3 eruption -- but that number only includes the 15% of the island's hoteliers and activity providers who responded to a poll.

"On an annual basis, we typically have $2.5 billion in spending," Birch said.

While May is an off-peak month, the volcanic activity is already threatening businesses for the coming summer. Hotels and activity businesses are reporting a 15% to 50% decrease in bookings for June, July and August.

Some bed-and-breakfast locations have had to shut down and refund tens of thousands of dollars to guests, Birch said.

Vacation rentals in Lower Puna were ordered to stop operations to conserve water and to help emergency workers focus on residents, the Hawaii Civil Defense Agency said.

The good news is that the volcanic activity is contained to only a fraction of the Big Island. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about the same size as the entire island of Oahu, and even if the crater lake erupted, the impact is expected to remain within the park, Birch said.

"Even the immediate location of the new lava fissures -- they're all within about a 10-square-mile radius, and the island is 4,028 square miles," Birch said. "It doesn't affect 90% of our island, let alone the rest of the state."

He said visitors hoping to come to other parts of the Big Island shouldn't be deterred.

"We're a completely safe place to come and vacation ... if you had plans to visit our island anytime this month or in the next few months," he said.

Toxic gas and 'vog'

But with dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide gas, Kilauea is no place for visitors.

The eruption created new volcanic vents on the ground, releasing slow-moving lava and toxic gas into communities.

If winds weaken, that gas and other volcanic pollutants can easily settle with moisture and dust to create a nasty haze called volcanic smog, or "vog"

And tiny sulfuric acid droplets can cause respiratory problems, the US Geological Survey said.

Why this eruption is different

Kilauea has actually been erupting since 1983 and "changes every single day," Birch said. "It's been flowing continuously for the past 35 years. So the eruption hasn't stopped, it's just changed location."

In the past, volcanic activity has prompted more tourists to come, Birch said.

"Last year we had a lava flow that was pouring into the ocean, and it was in a nonresidential area. That actually did increase our visitation numbers," he said.

"The year before, there was an explosion of lava in the lake in the caldera. We had almost 30,000 visitors on day trips from other islands to come and see it. The traffic was lined up for miles."

So what's different now? Much of the current activity is happening in a private area that had been evacuated, and the access is restricted, Birch said.

"Once it's calmed down or it's passed, it definitely will become something for tourists to check out as well," he said.

A slow-moving nightmare

While the eruption has disrupted tourism, it has become a full-blown nightmare for many residents.

About 2,000 residents have been forced to evacuate as lava could swallow their homes at any moment. So far, at least 37 structures have been destroyed, officials said.

What's worse, the lava could take months to creep up, Birch said.

"It's actually much slower and very painful because it's a creeping devastation," he said. Sometimes the lava may move five feet in a day."

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