KAILUA-KONA — It appears not even Pele herself can put the brakes on Hawaii’s booming tourism industry.
Volcanic activity in the Puna District ripped open the earth Thursday, sending lava spewing from several newly formed fissures crisscrossing multiple residential areas, which led Hawaii County to issue mandatory evacuation orders and Gov. David Ige to activate the Hawaii National Guard to help manage the situation.
As lava continued to flow, the destructive forces of nature surrounding the restless Kilauea Volcano rounded out Friday morning with several earthquakes — including one that registered at a magnitude-6.9, the most powerful on Hawaii Island in 40 years.
Still, Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said it was “business as usual” across 99 percent of the island.
“A couple airlines are getting out in front of the game, basically offering up assistance if necessary, but all in all there’s very little tourism affected,” Birch said Friday afternoon.
There are no specific plans or programs in place, he added, but companies such as Alaska Airlines have reached out to offer their assistance should it be required. To this point, it hasn’t been.
“Really, the only tourism that would be affected is anyone that would be staying in that specific location,” Birch said.
No hotels are located on the swath of Southeastern Hawaii Island directly impacted by the lava flows and noxious gasses that accompany them.
It’s likely there are some vacation rentals in the region, Birch said, but as there is no official county registry of such properties, the bureau is unaware of how many exist, where they might be located or if any guests are currently residing in such units throughout the area.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was closed “until further notice” Friday afternoon, according to a press release from the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), in the wake of damage caused by that morning’s earthquakes and aftershocks.
Aside from the park’s closure, the most substantial impact of the new flows and preceding/subsequent earthquakes has been a flood of inquiries, mostly from the mainland and abroad, as news of the events spread across the world.
“About every 30 seconds, we’re getting calls,” Birch said. “Our telephones yesterday and today have been overwhelmed with questions from potential guests and future guests checking on the status.”
Is it safe to travel? What should we be aware of? How’s the air quality?
HTA’s Friday afternoon release addressed these concerns en masse.
“No flights into airports anywhere in Hawaii are being impacted by Kilauea volcano and the area where the lava is coming to the surface is very far from resort areas throughout the Hawaiian Islands where visitor accommodations are located,” said George D. Szigeti, president and chief executive officer of the HTA.
“Travelers can enjoy their vacation experience in the Hawaiian Islands to the fullest, with the only word of caution being that they stay out of areas closed to the public for their own safety,” he continued.
A no-fly zone has been implemented over Kilauea, which may impact some helicopter tours.
Hawaiian Airlines is also waiving reservation change fees for travelers into Hawaii Island airports through May 6, according to a release from the company.
Stipulations include that the ticket was issued prior to May 3, that the travel was scheduled for between May 3-6 and that new flights are booked from the same departure point to the same arrival point in the same class of service before May 13.
The fee will be waived for ticket holders who book flights after May 13, “but applicable difference in fare will be collected,” the release read.