Tourism sluggish in Volcano

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Tourists look out at the Halema'uma'u Crater Wednesday in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Guests have lunch Wednesday at Kilauea Lodge in Volcano. The lodge reports a shortage of visitors, despite the reopening of nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The reopening of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has brought visitors back to nearby Volcano, but perhaps not as quickly as some expected.

While business in Volcano has improved since the reopening of the park in September, tourism to the area is still down from before the recent Kilauea eruption began May 3 in lower Puna. Businesses contacted by the Tribune-Herald reported erratic visitor numbers as the island’s tourist industry remains sluggish.

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“Lately, it’s been really quiet these days,” said Pua Norris, head innkeeper at Volcano Village Lodge, a Volcano bed-and-breakfast.

Norris said that although business at the lodge is “picking up slowly,” it remains a far cry from the booming business prior to the national park’s closure on May 10.

“Some days are a bit bigger than others,” said Kendall Blakely, assistant manager at Volcano Winery, explaining that post-eruption business is generally “hit-or-miss.”

Janet Coney, general manager of Volcano hotel Kilauea Lodge, agreed, saying that despite a busy Thanksgiving weekend, she generally has received fewer visitors than what would be typical this time of year.

Tourism to the island is down as a whole. According to data released Thursday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the average daily number of visitors in October was down 10 percent from the previous year, while visitor spending for that month was down by 11 percent.

“We rely on referrals and word of mouth,” said Bruce Taylor, deputy director of Kilauea Military Camp, which exists within the national park.

“When we close for four or five months (due to the eruption), it’s hard to build numbers up again.”

Coney and other Volcano business managers partly attributed the slow recovery to the absence of what was once a major attraction in the area: the lava at Halema‘uma‘u crater.

“There’s no visible lava now, there’s no glow,” Coney said. “So we’re not seeing as many evening visitors.”

Coney noted that the lack of lava is a likely reason for Kilauea Lodge’s recent dearth of local visitors. Blakely explained that some locals are still interested in seeing the changes to Halema‘uma‘u, which has expanded substantially since the start of the eruption, but the exotic attraction of the nightly lava glow is lost.

Ira Ono, president of tourism advocacy group Experience Volcano, agreed that the lack of lava at Kilauea summit may contribute to a general lack of visitors in the short term, but explained that he does not think it will harm visitor numbers in the future.

“I just don’t think there’s enough publicity that the park’s open yet,” Ono said.

Ono said that, in his experience, the lack of lava has not interfered with visitors’ enjoyment of the park, saying that the view of the crater, the trails and the steam vents are suitably “epic” to provide long-term incentive to visit the park.

Coney agreed with Ono’s assessment.

“There was no glow 10 years ago, and I think I remember we did pretty well back then,” Coney said.

Taylor said the park and the island need to develop a new marketing strategy for the park, now that no active lava can be seen on the surface of the island.

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“My belief is that the visitor industry isn’t capturing the full flavor of the summit,” Taylor said. “There’s no lava or billowing clouds of bad chemicals, but there is a 1,000-foot hole in the ground, and it’s honestly awe-inspiring.”

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

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