Big Island tourism still taking big hits

  • Hollyn Johnson/Tribune-Herald

    Ola Tripp, owner of Lava Rock Cafe, Kilauea General Store and Kilauea Kreations in Volcano

VOLCANO — As Hawaii Volcanoes National Park continues into its fourth consecutive week of closure, the hospitality industry in the hamlet of Volcano faces unprecedentedly lean times.

Park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane said the closure of the park, which has gone on for 30 days as of Saturday, has so far cost Hawaii Island more than $12.3 million in visitor spending — park visitors last year spent $455,000 each day at Big Island businesses, not counting park entrance fees.

Volcano ordinarily would be a significant beneficiary of that visitor spending, located within a mile of the park entrance. Without the flow of visitors, however, many businesses have seen income dry up.

“We used to get between 40 and 60 visitors here for dinner,” Tom Smith, owner of Ohelo Cafe, a popular restaurant in town, said on Monday. “Last night we had six.”

Janet Coney, office manager at the venerable Kilauea Lodge, is running what she called “plume specials” until today discounted deals on rooms and meals. However, the lodge still has seen “hundreds” of room cancellations.

Smith said he had to temporarily lay off some employees until the situation improves, although the cafe is remaining open for the time being. Not all businesses have that luxury: Smith said another restaurant, Thai Thai Bistro and Bar, has closed until June 22.

Coney said she is trying to keep Kilauea Lodge open for the sake of its employees, but the business has taken a “very hard hit” — only 13 diners visited the restaurant Monday afternoon, compared to its usual 80-90 guests.

The many bed-and-breakfast establishments in Volcano have months of uncertainty ahead of them, as reservations continue to drop off the calendar. Kathleen Golden, co-owner of the Volcano Rainforest Retreat Bed and Breakfast, said her business’ four cottages have fallen to 62 percent occupancy for June, a sharp decline from the 95 percent occupancy in early May, before the volcano erupted.

“We’re trying to make people more aware of how it is here,” Golden said. Many people canceling their reservations have cited air quality as a reason, although Volcano has been largely spared significant ashfall or vog.

Shannon Fisher, owner of the Aloha Crater Lodge, said canceled reservations at her business are slowing down somewhat after a frenzy of cancellations following the closure of the park — Fisher said she would get three cancellations in a day when she would typically get three a week — but the situation remains precarious.

Although Fisher said May is commonly a slow month for bed-and-breakfast places, the month is typically balanced by full reservations throughout the summer months. However, Fisher said her bookings throughout the summer are still patchy.

“I think a lot of us here need to think about reinventing ourselves,” Fisher said. “As soon as the national park is closed, no one wants to come.”

Fisher said she is offering temporarily discounted rates during the crisis in order to entice worried visitors back to the island.

Two private businesses on park land have faced even greater challenges. Volcano House and Kilauea Military Camp have been indefinitely closed since the park shut down.

While representatives from Volcano House and KMC could not be reached despite repeated requests, an employee of Volcano House said she and her approximately 80 co-workers were permanently laid off about two weeks after the park’s closure. The parent company of Volcano House, Ortega National Parks LLC, offered employees alternative positions at other Ortega locations throughout the country, the employee said.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this sort of decline,” said Ola Tripp, owner and proprietor of Kilauea General Store and the Lava Rock Cafe. Tripp said his businesses have seen between 85 and 90 percent fewer customers since the eruption started. Like Smith, Tripp has had to temporarily scale back his workforce from 35 to “just a handful” until the situation improves.

Of course, knowing when the park will reopen is impossible. Ferracane said conditions in the park are unsafe, with daily explosions at the summit spreading ash and vog throughout the area and frequent earthquakes causing structural damage to park buildings and infrastructure.

Cracks have appeared on the deck of Jagger Museum, Ferracane said, while much of the park’s facilities are without power or water. Ferracane added that damage from the quakes cannot be easily assessed because of the general unsafety of the park.

The 30-day closure is historic, Ferracane said. At no other time in history has the park been closed for such a long period, she said. The previous closure record was set in 2013, when a federal government shutdown closed all national parks for 16 days.

Before that, Ferracane said the only comparable closure was in the 1940s.

“We were closed a lot during martial law in World War II,” Ferracane said.

Meanwhile, the park’s Kahuku Unit — located approximately 40 miles away from the main park, and the only part of the park to remain open — has seen a vast uptick in activity since the rest of the park’s closure. Ferracane said the Kahuku Unit has seen triple its usual visitors and had its hours of operation increased from three to five days a week.

Ferracane said the park has not had to lay off any employees. Most of the park’s 134 employees have been temporarily relocated to different offices on the island — for example, some customer-facing roles have been transferred to Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo for the time being.

The park will remain closed until the U.S. Geological Survey determines it is safe, Ferracane said.

“We don’t close the parks lightly,” Ferracane said. “Safety is our No. 1 priority.”

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Michael Brestovansky can be reached at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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