Tourism bureau: It’s the best time to visit the Big Island

While potential visitors to the Big Island might be scared off by the Kilauea eruption, an upcoming marketing campaign suggests it might now be the perfect time to visit the island.

Ross Birch, president of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said the impact of the eruption on the island’s tourism industry has been substantial. Some businesses reliant on a steady stream of visitors — such as hotels, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts — have closed while others have been forced to temporarily lay off workers to continue operating.

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In order to entice visitors back to the island, Birch said the bureau is working on dispelling misinformation about the eruption. The bureau implemented a $500,000 campaign to create programs in the United States and Japan intended to let people know “we’re still open for business,” Birch said.

Other tourism authorities statewide have made similar efforts. The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau created a handout for industry partners to share with potential guests that explains basic facets of the eruption, such as the size and location of the flow, what businesses are open and where to find the latest updates on eruption activity and air quality.

What Birch called “the second phase” of the Big Island visitors bureau’s improved marketing has not begun but will involve a $1.4 million campaign to “flip the messaging” about the island.

“Not only is this not a bad time to visit the island, but it’s actually the best time,” Birch said.

He said the bureau will request funding from the state for the campaign, which will lean into the unprecedented nature of the Kilauea eruption, as well as emphasizing the other destinations around the island.

Such a shift in messaging would coincide well with the possible opening of a long-discussed area for members of the public to safely watch the ongoing lava flow from fissure 8. Birch said the visitors bureau has not been involved with the county’s plans for such an area but was confident it would attract visitors from around the world.

“It would be a way for people to see history happen,” Birch said.

Jan Trombley, co-owner of Hilo-based tour group Keikana Tours, which operates the popular Hoppa-On Hoppa-Off bus service, agreed that the prospect of safe lava viewing is a powerful attractor for visitors.

“I tell these folks on the cruise ships that they already have the best view of the lava,” Trombley said. “When the ships circle around the southern part of the island, they go right past the flow.”

Trombley said that, unlike many tourist-centric businesses, Keikana Tours has benefited from the eruption, seeing a more than 100 percent increase in customers at times. With most of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed, visitors instead look for other places to visit — such as Akaka Falls, the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Rainbow Falls — giving Keikana Tours an opportunity to attract more customers.

Of course, Trombley said, her business is dependent on cruise ship traffic. During the weeks when the most frequent ship to the island, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Pride of America, canceled port calls on the Big Island following widely reported fears of volcanic gas, Trombley said the future of her business was just as uncertain as others’ in the tourist industry.

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Birch said he is not aware of other islands having to significantly alter their marketing following the eruption. While the entire state suffered a decrease in visitors when the eruption began, the other Hawaiian islands saw visitors return much more quickly than the Big Island.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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