Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman
Courtesy of Blue Hawaiian
Companies such as Blue Hawaiian have changed their tour options so travelers can check out new elements of the Big Island since the 2018 eruption.
In 2018, Kilauea caused plenty of devastation—and also created new ways to experience the Big Island. Here’s how the local travel industry is tapping into the changed landscape.
Hawaiians are no strangers to volcanic activity. Hawaii Island—commonly known as the Big Island—was formed by multiple volcanoes, three of which are still active. Among them, Kilauea holds the Guinness World Record for being the most active volcano on the planet. Beginning in 1983, its continuous lava flow served as the island’s primary attraction for visitors.
But from May to September 2018, Kilauea’s most destructive eruption in recorded history took place. Hundreds of homes were decimated and many local businesses suffered an economic downturn. When the activity had ended, 55.6 square miles had been covered by lava flow and 439 acres of new land had been added to the island.
Residents weren’t the only ones affected on the island, whose economy relies heavily on tourism. As reported by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, in the first half of 2019, the island of Hawaii saw declines in both visitor spending and visitor arrivals.
In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visitation declined by approximately one third since 2017, say officials. Hilo-based KapohoKine Adventures cites an “incredibly challenging” 12 to 18 months in the volcano’s wake, with business dipping by as much as 30 percent.
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Hotels were impacted, too. Owners of the Hale Ohu Bed and Breakfast in Volcano, twin sisters Nicole and Gabrielle Naughten, who opened their boutique property in 2017, had been on course for a successful 2018. But occupancy dropped from 85 percent on April 30 to 51 percent during the eruption and didn’t recover by much afterwards because many visitors want to see lava. “They don’t see the value of the park’s abundant natural history, so getting those visitors interested in visiting this side of the island is difficult,” say the Naughtens.
What travelers may not realize is that it’s an ideal time to feel like a pioneer on Hawaii Island, exploring the newly formed landscape. It’s as though a fresh new destination has emerged in Pele’s playground.
Isaac Hale Beach Park, also known as Pohoiki, reopened to the public in December 2018, showing off a new black sand beach and several thermal ocean ponds, formed when lava met the water.
In 2019, while flying over the Halemaumau crater within Kilauea’s caldera, pilots spotted what looked like a piece of turquoise in its center. A newly formed green pond has been confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a mysterious natural occurrence that researchers are trying to get to the literal bottom of; this is a difficult task given the pond’s precarious location—the once 280-foot crater is now 1,600 feet deep.
However, visitors can take advantage of the new spectacles. Tour companies such as Blue Hawaiian Helicopters have incorporated flyovers of the sights and collapsed crater into their excursions, the newly formed marvels taking the place of lava sightings.
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Hawaii Forest and Trail is “offering more epic island journeys than volcanic adventures,” according to marketing manager Susan Bredo. It has also added a Flavors of Hawaii tour to its array to help showcase other appealing aspects of the island. Founded by a naturalist, the tour company employs interpretative guides familiar with the island’s history, culture, flora, and fauna. Visitors can now learn about how the evolved landscape formed, along with the emergence of new vegetation.
Because the previously popular magma viewing is no longer available on tours, KapohoKine Adventures added a new all-terrain vehicle and zipline combination excursion, while the popularity of other offerings, such as the Maunakea Stellar Explorer tour, have boomed.
Since last September, much of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has reopened. The facilities management team undertook a “Herculean effort” to repair the profound damage Kilauea caused. Nevertheless, officials are excited to spotlight features of the park that weren’t visited as much when the magma was flowing, such as Puʻu Loa, the “hill of long life” and site of one of the state’s largest known collections of petroglyphs, and Holei Sea Arch, where rangers answer questions about how sea arches are formed and eventually crumble.
Even new park regulations have a plus: Motor coaches are now forbidden. Only automobiles, shuttles, and vans can drive on park land, due to weight restrictions—with the benefit of fewer people visiting at once.
“Historically, what has driven visitors is eruption activity. Since we reopened last year, savvy visitors are now planning to explore some of the often-overlooked hidden gems of the park,” says Ben Hayes, chief of Interpretation and Education for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “Many are found along Chain of Craters Road such as Kealakomo Overlook. . . . For sweeping vistas and unobstructed views, this one can’t be beat.”
Many visitors with trips to Hawaii Island booked during Kilauea’s outburst became discouraged by reports of stifling air and hazy views. General manager of the Kilauea Lodge and Restaurant, Janet Coney, was answering questions such as, “Will you provide gas masks if we still come?” and “Can you see the lava from the windows?”
“We spent a lot of time educating our guests last year,” Coney says. “Many were adventurers. But there’s always a silver lining if you look for it.”
In the wake of the tourism downturn, Coney helped start Experience Volcano, a volunteer-driven group of locals in the hospitality industry, artists, business owners, and individuals coming together to market Volcano’s many attractions to visitors other than viewing lava.
It’s now been one year since Kilauea’s explosive eruption, and the myriad treasures await. “The island of Hawaii is home to some of the most awe-inspiring geological forces and landscapes in the world and, as such, is ever-changing,” Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau said. “With Kilauea volcano’s activity having paused since September 2018, our skies are bluer, golf courses greener, and our famous Kona sunsets are more vibrant than ever.”
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