Hawaii volcano eruption prompts fears of disastrous blow to tourism

Hawaii’s $2.4bn industry is struggling in the wake of the Kilauea volcano eruptions, with bookings for May through July down 50%

David Collier, who has been guiding trips on the island for a decade, clutched the wheel of a 13-person van last week on the road up to Mauna Kea observatory. Up until Kilauea began erupting this month, his full-time job was taking visitors on three separate volcano-related tours. Now, with Hawaii Volcanoes national park closed and the district of Puna inundated with lava, two of those three tours are cancelled until further notice.

“As of this morning, the road where I’ve been conducting tours for a decade is no longer there,” he said. “Things are changing.”

Hawaii island’s $2.4bn tourism industry is struggling in the wake of the Kilauea volcano eruptions, with bookings for May through July down 50%, according to the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. Businesses on the island are doing their best to convince tourists that it’s still safe to visit.

If tourism falters much longer, Collier reasoned, there’s still plenty of work in the astronomy industry located on this 13,000-foot-high dormant volcano. Mauna Kea – the largest peak in the world when measured from its base on the seabed – is a mecca for astronomers, as well as tourists. But his feelings about the volcano are mixed: it is eruptions like Kilauea’s that created the island in the first place.

“Pele has awoken and is wreaking her destruction upon us, but I never forget that without her I would not have this beautiful place to call home,” he said. “We all understand the balance of these forces here on Hawaii island.”

Doug Arnott, who owns the tour company Collier works for, Arnott’s Lodge & Hiking, said he’s far more concerned with the potential economic disaster than he is about Kilauea, which is located about 30 miles away from his hometown of Hilo. The decision by major cruise lines to cancel their regular stops in the port of Hilo have been especially frustrating, he said.

“What’s happening is only affecting a very small slice of the island,” he said. In the last couple weeks, he said, five regular cruise ship stops have been cancelled. When those visitors don’t come, he has to cancel his tours.

Until the eruption, tourism on Hawaii was growing. In 2017, the 1.7 million people visited “The Big Island” and spent 14% more than the year before, according to Visitors Bureau statistics.

Residents watch lava erupting from a Kilauea volcano fissure in Leilani Estates, on Hawaii’s Big Island, on 23 May 2018 in Pahoa, Hawaii.
Residents watch lava erupting from a Kilauea volcano fissure in Leilani Estates, on Hawaii’s Big Island, on 23 May 2018 in Pahoa, Hawaii. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Now, the future looks uncertain – volcanologists have no ideas when the eruption might end. Arnott said the island has to adjust. “We need to find different ways for people to visit,” he said.

Allen Hartvigsen, the general manager at the popular Hilo Coffee Mill, is one of those trying to adjust. Since the eruption and the drop off in tourism, especially from cruise ships, Hartvigsen has had to cut employee hours by 60%. In the past few days, he’s gone door-to-door trying to drum up business, asking local businesses if they’ll carry his coffee. “I’m just walking into stores the old fashioned way, doing cold calls and shaking hands like I used to 30 years ago,” he said. In the meantime, he’s trying not to lay any of his employees off, and hoping that visitors return.

“We’re receiving phone calls every hour from families that are cancelling their Hawaii vacations or are considering it,” said Jason Cohn, the vice-president of Sales and Marketing for Hawaii Forest & Trail, a tour guide company. He said that so far his company is expecting a 30% decrease in revenue.

“It’s a shame because other parts of the island have been absolutely beautiful these past couple of days, and not to mention safe places to view the incredible activity that’s happening from afar.”

In Pahoa, near the heart of volcanic action, the highway is often clogged with cars. But the bohemian downtown remains dismally quiet, according to Amedeo Markoff, a business owner and board member of the Pahoa Mainstreet Association.

“If this goes on,” he said, “there is going to be a second disaster: an economic one.”

Markoff said he was unhappy with a statement given by Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, last week in which he asked visitors and residents to “stay out of Puna and Pahoa”.

“If what he’s saying is true, and it’s dangerous to be here, then we should evacuate,” Markoff said. “But we’re still here. There’s a misconception that Pahoa is dangerous right now, but we’re used to lava and we know how to deal with it.”

Recently, the air has also become a concern, with the Hilo medical center seeing a moderate increase in the number of people coming with symptoms related to volcanic smog and haze, which can begin with dry eyes or a scratchy throat.

Rebekah Blakey, 31, of Los Angeles, and her sister arrived on Hawaii on 17 May, the same day that Kilauea sent an ash plume 30,000 feet in the air. They rebooked accommodations in the north of the island, but said they did occasionally feel effects from from the volcanic smog.

“Our eyes have been a bit watery,” she said, “and on certain days, we didn’t feel great”.

Back on the summit of Mauna Kea, the sun is setting on a thick layer of clouds. It’s incredibly quiet; the vastness of space seems to swallow the sound. The air is clear, too, all traces of vog gone above the cloud cover.

Collier munches on a pack of astronaut’s ice cream from the visitor’s center while his tour passengers amble around on the Mars-like surface, snapping photos of the view. He tells them: “This is going to be one of the best sunsets of your life.”

• This article was amended on 28 May 2018 because an earlier version referred to astrologists. This has been corrected to say astronomers.


Breena Kerr in Hawaii

The GuardianTramp

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