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Tourism still taking a hit

KAILUA-KONA — Close to 12 months after last year’s volcanic eruption, Hawaii Island’s visitor arrivals and spending have yet to return to the same levels they were this time last year.

Meanwhile, it might be as long as another six months until tourism officials can get a true picture of the impact and subsequent recovery.

“Recovery is not happening as quickly as we wish it would,” said Ross Birch, Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau executive director. “We almost had to come to a complete ending point before we could come to a beginning point.”

According to the agency’s first quarter report released Thursday, visitor arrivals to the island were down 9.3 percent and visitor spending was down 13.3 percent.

In its first months, Hawaii Island’s 2018 was shaping up to be a phenomenal year for the state’s leading industry.

The eruption, however, put a quick end to that, with Birch likening the impact to a roller coaster.

Kilauea erupted on May 3, 2018, in the lower East Rift Zone in Puna. Twenty-four fissures opened in the vicinity of Leilani Estates. The eruption continued through early September, covering nearly 14 square miles in Puna. It destroyed 716 homes and made over 3,000 parcels inaccessible, and destroyed a school, farms, cultural sites, roadways, water systems, recreational destinations, and a large portion of the electrical grid.

Because the year was such an anomaly, officials have been looking at numbers from 2017 to get a more accurate gauge as to how the state is doing. Looking at March 2017, Birch said Hawaii Island is still down 2.3% for arrivals compared to March 2019.

The island was hurt even further by two back-to-back hurricanes and an ensuing federal government shutdown.

The impact was biggest with the Japan market — the state’s largest internationally — and Birch said the island’s still suffering on that front. From last March’s 20,550 Japanese visitors, this March HTA recorded 12,289 to Hawaii Island.

Businesses that rely on tourism continue to see the effects of the volcano eruption. Penn Henderson, director of sales and marketing for the Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Guides, said the past several months have been more challenging.

“We’ve felt the decrease in visitor numbers,” he said. “We are down compared to last year.”

For the first quarter this year, the Fair Wind was down between 4 percent and 8 percent. However, Henderson said, April is looking better — though it’s been a slow rebound.

“Overall, I think we’re encouraged heading into the summer compared to where we were last year,” he said. “Certainly January and February were tough months. You could chalk it all up to the volcano.”

For the Fair Wind, Henderson thinks the company is probably doing better than most activity attraction companies as it hasn’t experienced anything drastic. She added it hasn’t had to change boat schedules.

“April is going to be an all-time record April for us. I think that’s partly because of a late Easter,” he said. “May is a slower period for everybody, but June and July the bookings are already picking up.”

During the eruption, airlines and hotels offered deals to help keep people coming to the island. That, however, had an unforeseen side effect.

“The volcano — that was a very acute, black and white effect on our economy,” Henderson said. “What we’re seeing now is it’s not the high spenders we’ve seen in years past, but the budget traveler.”

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, Henderson added, but businesses have had to adapt.

Tourism officials, meanwhile, are doing their own part to boost the numbers. Just two weeks ago, a Japanese television crew visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park during a visit to the island.

“The message they wanted me to convey was how safe the island was to travel,” he said.

Birch also referenced impacts from an increase in budget travelers as well as competition with Puerto Rico, which has launched its own aggressive marketing campaign to attract tourists.

HTA is working on a new marketing strategy. Birch said the story is to tell the new tale of the volcano and about everything else the island offers to provide a good experience and vacation.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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