Flow of tourists in Leilani Estates diminishes

  • Tribune-Herald file photo Tourists walk away from the end of Leilani Avenue after viewing the lava field July 1 in Leilani Estates.

More than a year after lava stopped flowing aboveground on the Big Island, lava tourism in Leilani Estates might be slowing down.

The Puna subdivision was ravaged by the 2018 Kilauea eruption and became something of a tourist destination after the eruption ended, to the annoyance of many Leilani Estates residents who had to deal with increased traffic and rubberneckers as they returned to their homes after being forced to evacuate during the disaster.

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However, Leilani Estates Community Association president Andy Andrews said the number of tourists has fallen significantly since earlier this year.

Andrews said residents most impacted by the influx of tourists — generally those who live closest to the lava flows and fissure 8 — reported that traffic around their homes has diminished.

The reduction in visitors is generally viewed as a change for the better, Andrews said. At the height of lava tourism in Leilani Estates, visitors would park on roads even residents were prohibited from parking on, ignore posted access restriction signs and occasionally climb the lava flows. Although Andrews said there has still been some “headbanging” between residents and tourists, the number of confrontations has declined.

Andrews attributed the decrease in visitors to the relative mundanity of the lava itself.

“The conjecture is that people are just not that interested in the lava anymore,” he said. “Those of us who lived here know what fissure 8 looked like when it was active. But, to people who haven’t seen it before, it doesn’t look a lot different from the rest of the lava rock.”

Some tour companies stopped offering tours into Leilani Estates out of respect for the residents, Andrews said. Other companies try to present the lava in a way that respects the human cost of the disaster.

“We don’t want to overadvertise it because we want to be sensitive, but we also have to run a business,” said Chris Paterson, owner of Kailani Tours Hawaii based in Kailua-Kona. “Our whole thing is volcano tours, so without the glow, we’re put in a tough place.”

Paterson said his company works with a consortium of four Leilani Estates property owners whose homes were destroyed by the eruption. The four speak with visitors about the loss of their homes, while the guides discuss the eruption itself.

“I’ve come to find that most visitors walk away with a deeper understanding of the eruption and what it meant,” Paterson said, although he added that there has been less general interest in volcano-related tours now that liquid lava is no longer visible on the island.

With fewer visitors, Andrews said there has been no progress nor any attempt to pursue a plan to make Leilani Avenue, one of the subdivision’s two points of ingress, into a private road that could be blocked by a gate. While the previous community association president suggested such a plan, Andrews said the community has “bigger fish to fry.”

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In particular, Andrews said, squatters remain a problem in the subdivision, with many homes still unoccupied by their owners. A committee of residents has worked with police on systematically removing unauthorized residents from abandoned homes — aided by a $15,000 crime reduction grant — but Andrews said he thinks “it’s still months until we feel like we were back before the eruption.”

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

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