HILO — The number of visitors to the Big Island in 2018 dropped from the previous year, while visitor spending remained flat in the wake of the Kilauea eruption.
According to year-end data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, all islands but Hawaii saw an increase in visitor arrivals compared to 2017, and while the Big Island did see an increase in visitor spending, that increase was nominal.
Between 2017 and 2018, visitor spending on the Big Island increased by 0.2 percent, or about $6 million. Meanwhile, total visitors to the island dropped by 2.5 percent, decreasing by about 50,000 to 1,718,181.
On the other hand, all other islands saw increases in spending by between 3 percent to 18 percent, and increases in arrivals by between 1 percent and 14 percent.
Visitors to both sides of the island dropped between the two years, with Kona visitors falling by half a percent, and Hilo visitors by 7.8 percent.
The total number of visitors to the island in December dropped by 9.1 percent from the December of the previous year. Visitors to Hilo dropped by more than 17 percent that month, while Kona visitors dropped by 8 percent.
The weak year for island tourism is a lingering aftereffect of the disasters of 2018, chiefly the Kilauea eruption and Hurricane Lane.
Ross Birch, president of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said the early months of 2018 were stronger than 2017, but the beginning of the eruption in May heralded a precipitous drop in visitors that has only gradually begun to recover.
In particular, visitors from Japan dropped significantly statewide, with every island reporting a drop in Japanese visitors from 2017 to 2018. The Big Island experienced 6 percent fewer visitors from Japan in 2018, and 21 percent fewer in December than in the December 2017.
Birch said the drop in Japanese visitors is significant because there was projected to be a large increase in Japanese visitors in 2018 thanks to Japan Airlines’ adoption of daily flights between Tokyo and Hawaii. Birch said he was anticipating a 35 to 40 percent increase in visitors from Japan by the end of the year; that change never came as Japanese tourists avoided the island during the eruption.
Birch, speaking from Tokyo, said restoring the confidence of the Japanese market is a high priority for the bureau.
With the end of liquid lava visible on the Big Island, Birch said the island’s marketing will have to change.
“We’re in a similar place to the other islands now,” Birch said. “We’ve got to push what makes our island unique.”
Despite the drop in visitors, many tourism-related businesses have not been significantly affected by the decline.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, one of the more popular attractions on the Big Island, did not register more than a mild drop in visitors during the Kilauea eruption.
“I think people were looking for something to do while (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park) was closed,” said Kate Logan, supervising manager for the botanical garden. “From what feedback I’ve heard, people were just happy to see a beautiful side of the island.”
Logan said what slump there was during the eruption quickly corrected itself after the eruption ended.
Virginia Armstrong, manager of Kona dive shop Kona Honu Divers, said customers to her business dropped approximately 10 percent to 15 percent following the eruption.
“It wasn’t great, but I can already see they’re bouncing back,” Armstrong said, who added that after a strong holiday season, the number of customers this month have surpassed those from the previous January.
While the post-eruption decline has been difficult for the island, Birch said it carries one silver lining: It all but guarantees a stronger year for 2019.
“If we can hold our own against the early 2018 numbers for the first four or five months, that will be a very good start,” Birch said.