Tourism official: ‘It hasn’t been that great of a start to the year’

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Visitors on a Green Travel and Tour Agency tour eat samples and watch the hand-dipping process Thursday at Big Island Candies in Hilo.

Big Island tourism has fallen to near-2017 numbers in the aftermath of the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

According to data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, total visitor arrivals and expenditures in February dropped well below numbers from the same month in 2018, with some statistics even dropping below numbers from February 2017.


Hawaii Island had nearly 30,000 fewer visitors last month than the previous February, a decline of nearly 15 percent. Meanwhile, those visitors spent 17 percent less money on the island in February this year compared to February 2018, a difference of more than $40 million.

The drop is especially precipitous compared to previous months. While tourism to the island each month since the Kilauea eruption began in May 2018 has suffered in comparison to pre-eruption numbers, expenditures and arrivals in January only dropped by 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Visitor spending also was about $60 million higher in January than last month.

“It hasn’t been that great of a start to the year,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau.

Birch called the continuing decline of visitor rates “the Kilauea effect,” and noted visitor statistics have declined throughout the state, though not as significantly as on the Big Island.

While Birch said he thinks lingering skepticism about island tourism following the eruption is still the primary cause of the decline, he added that the partial shutdown of the federal government in December and January likely contributed to February’s numbers. February also is the tail end of the typically strong winter season, with visitors expected to slacken off through the spring.

“The usual cycle is that airfares and hotels get too expensive, and then we lose visitors,” Birch said. “But now we have lower rates than ever.”

Birch did not rule out the possibility of the tourism slump being influenced by national or global financial trends, such as a recession, but said he hasn’t seen data to support that.

Birch said he has taken to using 2017’s visitor numbers as a baseline rather than 2018. It is to be expected that 2019’s numbers will not be as strong as last year’s, Birch said, but if this year can still exceed 2017’s numbers, the state of the industry might not be that bad.

And it actually might not be: Birch said although visitor spending last month is still well below February 2017 by about $20 million, there were about 1,000 more visitors last month than in February 2017.

The reason more visitors can arrive on the island but spend less money, Birch said, is that prices for tourist-facing industries were drastically cut following the eruption in order to entice visitors to return. Those prices have not yet returned to pre-eruption levels.

But businesses are not seeing 2017 levels of customers.

Bill De Rooy, owner of Nautilus Dive Center in Hilo, said he has never seen a slump this bad in his 37 years of business.

“The people just aren’t there,” De Rooy said. “There are fewer tourists, and there’s fewer sales.”

On the worst days, De Rooy said, nobody visits his shop at all.

“We’ve never had to advertise before,” he said. “We’ve always been just right here.”

Shannon Fisher, owner of the Aloha Crater Lodge in Volcano, said bookings are down between one-third and one-quarter of their usual rate. Fisher has had to cut her prices by up to 50 percent in order to attract customers.

“I’m trying hard not to look at last year’s numbers,” she said.

Fisher said her rooms typically have been 50 percent-booked one month in advance, but now all her monthslong prospects are up in the air.

While the Crater Lodge was fully booked for about 10 days surrounding Christmas, that brief period represented more reservations than it had seen for three months.


“We’ve been in business for something like 12 years now,” Fisher said. “And now I feel like I’m starting my business all over again.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at

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