Isle tourism on the recovery track despite decline in first half of 2019

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Tourists, donning towels and parkas to protect themselves from the rain, check out Rainbow Falls Tuesday in Hilo.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Tourists, donning plastic parkas to protect themselves from the rain, check out Rainbow Falls Tuesday in Hilo.

While Big Island tourism numbers increased in June, visitor arrivals and spending in the first half of 2019 were still down compared to the same period a year ago, according to preliminary statistics released Tuesday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The Big Island reported $1.16 billion in visitor spending in the first six months of 2019, an 11.5% decline, or about $184 million, compared to last year, and 883,346 visitor arrivals, a decrease of 5.1%.

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In June, however, Hawaii Island had $203.2 million in visitor spending, an increase of 4.6% compared to June 2018, and 163,712 visitor arrivals, an increase of 9.3%.

Big Island tourism officials say the numbers are an indication that the “ship is turning around.”

Hawaii Island continues to recover following the 2018 eruption of Kilauea volcano. While lava flowed through lower Puna, destroying more than 700 homes and structures, tourism impacts were felt islandwide.

Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said the Big Island had a “very strong” first half of the year in 2018.

For visitor arrivals to be down just more than 5% for the first six months of 2019, he said it’s “looking very well for us. Actually, we’re well within our recovery at this point … .”

This is “kind of the beginning of that shifting, or that turn,” Birch said, and each month for the remainder of the year should show gains.

“From us on the recovery side, we’re seeing some positive numbers,” Birch said. “We’re seeing a good trend, and hopefully we can get everyone up to acceptable levels and maintain it from there.”

While the number of visitors from the United States has been strong, he said the number of visitors from Japan is still lagging compared to 2018.

However, Birch said, one of the “great things” he’s seeing in the statistics is a 30% increase in Japanese visitors to the Hilo side.

“The east side of Hawaii Island has had a much tougher road … in terms of the recovery process,” he said. “It’s really been lagging in recovery on the east side, so this is a good sign that things are changing. We’re staring to see a little more activity.”

Ira Ono, owner of Volcano Garden Arts and president of Experience Volcano, said tourism and sales in Volcano are increasing, but are still down compared to two years ago.

“I’m an optimist, so I am encouraged,” he said.

Between frequent earthquakes caused by last year’s eruption and felt throughout Volcano, and the nearly four-month closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the stream of visitors to the area dwindled.

Ono said when the eruption happened, “if you owned a business, everything stopped. If you had vacation rentals, people canceled. It was common. If you looked at the national news, it was like the whole thing went up in smoke.”

Some businesses closed for months, he said. Ono was able to remain open but had to cut hours and lose employees to stay afloat, “and I think that was a common tale in Volcano village.”

Nathan Sherwood, retail manager and tour director of Akatsuka Orchid Garden, also in Volcano, said during the eruption, foot traffic in the business was down 50%-70%.

With the closure of the national park and less frequent tour bus visits, “no one was really coming up this way.”

Sherwood said he has seen small upticks since the lava stopped flowing last August, “maybe a few percentage points each month, but it’s a slow crawl. It’s not something that’s happening fast.”

Retail sales are about half of what they were last year before the eruption, he said.

Last weekend, though, Experience Volcano hosted its inaugural Experience Volcano Festival, a two-day event billed as a celebration of arts, crafts, food and Hawaiian culture that brought thousands to the community.

Volcano Garden Arts and Akatsuka both participated.

Ono said the festival was a “great success” and drew a lot of local visitors who had never been to Volcano.

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“Our hope is that people will realize that Volcano is a very vibrant community and that people should stop by on their way to (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park) … ” he said.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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