Saturday | June 25, 2016
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Helicopter companies get boost

By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

The ongoing partial federal shutdown is providing helicopter operators, and some tourists, with nowhere to go but up.

While other tourist-oriented businesses are being hit, the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park during the shutdown is causing visitors hoping to get a view of the park and the lava flowing from Pu‘u ‘O‘o to flock to helicopter tours.

“We have seen helicopter companies receiving a large bulk of the business,” said Ross Birch, Big Island Visitors Bureau executive director.

The air tours are still allowed to fly over authorized areas of the park while it’s closed. And, except for a lengthy hike over rough terrain, they provide the only way to get close to the active lava flows.

“We are definitely seeing a lift that would appear related to the closure of the national park,” said Rob Payesko, director of business development for Paradise Helicopters.

Payesko estimated the increase to be about 15 percent when compared to this time last year.

“We’ve seen an increase from both our Kona and Hilo side,” he said.

Still, Payesko called it a “mixed blessing,” adding that a lengthy park closure could result in fewer visitors coming to the Big Isle.

David Johnson, flight coordinator for Safari Aviation, estimated the increase in sales for his company at about 30 percent.

“It’s usually a little slower this time of year,” he said.

“It’s generated a great deal of interest.”

Mia Sloma was taking a helicopter tour from Hilo International Airport on Wednesday and said she is hoping to be able to visit the park soon.

“I was going to do both,” she said.

“I’ve traveled all the way from Denmark and I really hope it’s going to be open.”

Birch said he is concerned that a lengthy shutdown will cause more visitors to reconsider their trip.

Dave Cary, who lives in Virginia, said during a phone interview that he is visiting the Big Isle shortly and planned on spending several days exploring the park.

He said he may have reconsidered if he knew the park was closed before booking.

“It’s a good possibility we would have postponed until later and gone someplace else,” Cary said.

The park on average sees about 4,500 visitors a day when it’s open.

Some of those visitors appear to be going to the lava viewing area in Kalapana, operated by Hawaii County, instead.

The number of daily visitors has increased from between 250 and 300 per day to as much as 800 since the shutdown began, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Jan-Guard Hawaii Inc., which the county contracts with to staff the viewing area, has added five wo