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Eruption’s impact on visitor industry could be worse than thought

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today file photo

    The Body Glove gets ready to launch from Kailua Pier on March 21 during a visit by the MS Pride of America. The Body Glove bobbed idly throughout the day Wednesday, tethered to a mooring off Kailua Pier. Manager Michael Bell said the company lost both its tours, a full 200 passengers, because of the cancellation of the MS Pride of America cruise ship’s visits to the Big Island this week.

KAILUA-KONA — Kilauea volcano’s awesome power extends beyond its ability to rattle and reshape the earth that surrounds it.

While physical damage and danger from the eruption is limited mostly to lower Puna, the volcano’s fiery fits are wreaking havoc of a different sort around Hawaii Island — that of an economic variety.

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The results of skewed perceptions of the ongoing eruption, which has grabbed headlines around the globe since it began, 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.

“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.

Booming to bombing

In reality, even despite volcanic activity in its southeast region, life carries on much as it always has around most of Hawaii Island. But 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 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains closed because of safety concerns. The island’s most lucrative attraction, the park draws 2 million visitors annually and generates more than $150 million.

Several news outlets reported earlier this week that the island already had lost $5 million in tourism to the downturn caused by volcanic activity.

In actuality, it’s worse.

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.

Striking local

Acute impacts of the downturn were felt Wednesday in Kailua-Kona after Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship MS Pride of America announced it would forgo its scheduled stops on the island because of “adverse conditions” related to air quality.

The 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 about 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 their best year 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 forced Marrow to adapt.

During the past two weeks, KapohoKine altered 80 percent of its tour itineraries. The company 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 of the island.

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 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.”

Rippling out

The vacation rental industry — which represents about 20 percent of the accommodations inventory on Hawaii Island, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and lists more than 8,600 units on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO — also took a hit.

Hawaii County shut down all vacation rentals in the volcano-affected area during 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,” wrote Matt Middlebrook, Airbnb public policy manager for Hawaii, 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 less than $300 during the past 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 residents of lower Puna who lost their homes.

He painted a picture of the image the bureau and its partners will try to promote.

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“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.”

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.