KAILUA-KONA — Kilauea Volcano’s awesome power extends beyond its ability to rattle and reshape the earth that surrounds it, destroying property and displacing the people who call those lands home.
While physical damage and danger from the eruption is localized almost exclusively to Hawaii County’s Lower Puna region, the mountain’s fiery fits are wreaking havoc of a different sort across Hawaii Island — that of an economic variety.
Kilauea has grabbed two weeks worth of sensational headlines around the globe and made for fantastic storytelling opportunities, which have in turn conjured images for some of a pre-apocalyptic horror anxious to doom any who dare stray through its path.
“Believe it or not, the island is not getting ready to explode with the pieces showering the West Coast or something like that,” said Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce president Bill Walter, whose organization is fielding dozens of calls daily from concerned visitors and potential visitors.
The results of skewed perceptions of events include the rescheduling and cancellation of planned trips as well as decisions not to book at all — a disconcerting prospect for an island community in a state where tourism generated nearly $17 billion in visitor spending and supported more than 200,000 jobs last year.
Booming to bombing
In reality, even despite volcanic activity in its southeast region, life carries on much as it always has across most of Hawaii Island. In other words, it’s business as usual.
Only because Kilauea has proved the “little story that could,” lingering at the top of mainstream media news programs since the first fissure began spewing lava May 3, actual business on Hawaii Island has been anything but normal.
“(Tour companies) are all seriously looking at revamping what their tour offers are to keep their employees on board,” said Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau executive director Ross Birch. “They’re going to end up looking at downsizing their operations.”
Tourism was bound to slow as majority portions of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remain closed due to safety concerns. The island’s most lucrative attraction, the park draws two million visitors annually and generates over $150 million.
Several news outlets reported earlier this week the island had already lost $5 million in tourism to the downturn caused by volcanic activity.
In actuality, it’s worse than that.
Birch said the $5 million figure applies strictly to lost lodging and activity company profits from May through June.
He surveyed roughly 110 accommodations and 60 activity companies to generate the figure, and $5 million is what he’s compiled with only 20-25 percent of those surveyed currently reporting.
“That’s just direct impact of the initial cancellations that we’ve seen,” Birch explained. “As long as there are sensationalized messages going on out there, we’ll expect this (trend) to continue.”
The more troubling development, Birch said, are reports that reservations for lodging and activity companies have dropped by 50 percent for June-August. Along with December-February, the summer stretch makes up for the year’s highest rate of tourist traffic.
Acute impacts of the downturn were felt in Kailua-Kona Wednesday after Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship, MS Pride of America, announced it would forgo its scheduled stops on the island due to “adverse conditions” related to air quality.
Body Glove bobbed idly throughout the day, tethered to a mooring off Kailua Pier. Manager Michael Bell said the company lost both its tours, a full 200 passengers, from the one cruise ship cancellation alone.
Orinn Watanabe, branch manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car on Luhia Street in Kona, said the company is somewhat isolated from tourism trends, doing much of its business locally in the form of replacement vehicles, for instance. However, the cruise ship’s absence cost Enterprise eight rentals.
A representative from Destination Kona Coast sent out an email Wednesday indicating Princess Cruise Lines planned to port a ship in Kailua-Kona as scheduled Thursday.
“It’s disappointing,” Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce president Wendy Laros said of reports from member organizations of cancellations stretching weeks into the summer. “I don’t know about alarming yet, but certainly disappointing.”
Companies relying heavily on the National Park have been hit hardest, Birch said, a few moving in a span of weeks from the best year of their existences to mass layoffs.
Gary Marrow, owner of KapohoKine Adventures, a Big Island-based tour company, said his business isn’t suffering to those extremes. However, Pele has forced Marrow to adapt.
Over the last two weeks, KapohoKine has altered 80 percent of its tour itineraries. The company has also sustained about a 30 percent financial loss, but Marrow said most of that has to do with the absence of cruise ships on the east side.
He was adamant the danger is isolated to a small area and there remains a great deal to see and do in East Hawaii, even with the park largely off limits. Walter, the president of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“It’s pretty hard to replace an erupting volcano,” he said. “But by the same token, some of the botanical gardens and some of these ziplines and the museums in town are all really fascinating, and you see some beautiful things.”
The vacation rental industry — which represents around 20 percent of the accommodations inventory on Hawaii Island, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), and lists more than 8,600 units on sites like Airbnb and VRBO — has also been scathed.
Hawaii County shut down all vacation rentals in the volcano-affected area over the weekend, but just as with traditional lodging, guest decisions are driving the downturn more than any other factor.
Airbnb is the third-largest vacation rental operation in the state, per HTA. A spokesman for Airbnb said 9 percent of bookings have been canceled islandwide since May 4.
“We’re working to assure visitors staying in other areas that Hawaii Island is safe and open for business,” Matt Middlebrook, Airbnb public policy manager for Hawaii, wrote in an email. “We recognize that the island’s economy is fragile and want to do all we can to support the community.”
Alaska Airlines, on the heels of cancellations, has offered round-trip fares to Hawaii Island for under $300 over the last week. Those types of discounts aren’t common yet, Birch said, as many businesses likely consider it “a little too early” for such action.
Controlling the message
HTA and the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau have minimal reach when compared to the likes of CNN and Fox News, and taking a step back is the current strategy.
“We’re really waiting for this to kind of become the old news,” Birch said. “We need the news cycle to die down a little before anyone will hear the message we’re sending out.”
Instead of putting their proverbial foot on the gas, tourism promoters are taking a beat.
“In times like this, we start to pull from advertising,” Birch said. “At least at the very initial stages.”
When dramatic depictions have lost their luster, the plan will be to ramp up the messaging. Birch said that will happen primarily through social media, where his organization spends most of its money already.
“We’re reaching out to hotel and activity partners to get the positive social media message out there,” said Birch, adding no one wants to discount in the process the tragedy suffered by the resident of lower Puna who’ve lost their homes.
He painted a picture of the image the bureau and its partners will try to promote.
“Hey, I’m sitting by the pool here in Hawaii. It’s a beautiful day, and you wouldn’t even know a volcano is going off.”