Festival returns to Volcano as tourism begins to rebound from pandemic

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Kilauea Lodge bustles with diners in Volcano on Friday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Visitors walk on the trail that leads to the Uekahuna bluff at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Friday.

After a year of struggle, Volcano will welcome travelers’ return to Hawaii with the second Experience Volcano Festival in August.

The festival began in 2019 and was intended to be an annual event, but the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with its planned second event in July 2020. However, with visitation and vaccination rates rising in the state, the festival will return on Aug. 14.

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Jesse Tunison, press and outreach specialist for tourism advocacy group Experience Volcano Hawaii, said the 2019 festival was a success, bringing more than 3,000 guests to the village over two days.

This year’s event will only take place over a single day — Tunison said Experience Volcano doesn’t want to “bite off more than we can chew” — but Tunison said he still hopes to see about 1,500 attendees.

The festival will include a 5K and half-marathon run, activities such as community art projects, blown glass demonstrations, local vendors, live music and more.

Tunison said he believes the event will attract locals and visitors alike eager to attend a festival after a year of COVID lockdown.

“Part of this event is that we’re anticipating that many people are looking forward to a return to normalcy,” Tunison said.

The festival is also a relief for Volcano residents themselves. Tunison said the village, whose economy is highly dependent on tourism, became a “ghost town” last year when travel to the state was suspended.

However, the town is bustling today as the number of visitors to the state continues to rise.

Janet Coney, manager of the Kilauea Lodge restaurant in Volcano, said she thinks the restaurant is receiving is close to pre-COVID visitor numbers each day. Although she said the situation is obviously preferable to doldrums of 2020, she said the restaurant can be nearly overwhelmed because some staff positions have still not been filled after COVID layoffs.

“I feel bad because we have to turn people away every day,” said Janet Coney, manager of the Kilauea Lodge restaurant in Volcano. “We’re still limited to 50% capacity, so we have only nine tables and there’s not a lot we can do about that.”

Tunison said the town’s short-term vacation rentals, which were prohibited from accepting guests entirely for a few months in 2020, are now largely booked.

Kathleen Golden, co-owner of the Volcano Rainforest Retreat bed and breakfast, said her occupancy rates have leapt from 50% at the end of last year to 100% for the last three months, with bookings for the next several months also filling rapidly.

“It’s obviously very encouraging to be able to recover financially, because we were doing very bad last year,” Golden said, adding that occupancy rates are now better than they were in Jan. and Feb. 2020, before the pandemic reached the U.S.

Golden added that her guests appear to be extremely excited just to visit Hawaii and Volcano after their year of exile.

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“They’re just so interested and happy to be here, restoring themselves,” Golden said. “They have this need to get outside and meet with people again.”

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

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