Lava Tourism Will Be End Game for Hawaii Travel

by Kerry Tice
Lava Tourism Will Be End Game for Hawaii Travel

Sea view of Kilauea Volcano. Photo:

The phenomenon of volcanic eruptions has long been a tourism draw that is unique to the island of Hawaii, and the recent activity of the Kilauea Volcano will likely serve to be no different. Tour operators who specialize in the market say that while the time for lava tourism is not now, it isn’t far off, either.

Despite being mindful of the devastation that has befallen residents in the vicinity of Kilauea, some operators serving the area are already reporting an increased level of interest among travelers to see the lava flow.

“Yes, we are getting an extremely high volume of people who would like to go see the volcano right now. Unfortunately for the tourists, this is a time that is extremely serious and devastating to a community who are losing their homes and places to live,” said John Tarson, owner of Epic Lava on the Big Island, an established operator that offers guided hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and around current, active accessible lava flows.

“People find the volcano interesting because it is the most primal source of nature on the planet," he added. "It is most likely the beginning and the end of everything and it is definitely one of the most intriguing things that you could ever witness.”

Karen Lockwood, general manager and vice president of business development for Pacific Islands Institute on Honolulu, a tour operator and DMC, said: “We do expect to see additional bookings, but not immediately. Right now, the national news is reporting more about the evacuations, gases and lost homes, so visitors are not going to want to risk being displaced if they go to the Big Island. After the news dies down a bit, I believe visitors are going to be curious and want to try to see the molten lava – a rare (except by helicopter) event in most years.”

Meanwhile, mainland tour operators packaging Hawaii, were not reporting an immediate uptick in bookings but acknowledged the desire to witness these events is common and expected.

“There has been no noticeable increase in bookings to the Island of Hawaii since the volcano eruption, however, it is an important reason customers chose to vacation on the island,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays.

A spokesperson for The Mark Travel Corporation added that while the company has not seen “any meaningful feedback” on lava tourism as of late, Mark Travel will always develop programs based on demand.

Kilauea Volcano has been erupting steadily since 1983, making it the Earth’s longest-ever recorded continuous eruption. Millions of visitors have come to witness the volcano, resulting in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park being the number one visitor attraction in the entire state of Hawaii, and one of only 21 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the U.S.

While possible eruptions are still pending and it’s anyone’s guess where the lava path will choose to flow next, the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau actually described this event as “pretty minor” in comparison to lava flows that once threw lava over one thousand feet into the air during the early 1980s, according to Executive Director Ross Birch, who spoke to Travel Market Report yesterday from the island.

“Last year we had a huge bump in tourism when the lava was flowing directly into the ocean. It looked like a fire hose,” said Birch, who explained that when the lava heads into what they deem a “safe area,” it creates a great opportunity for viewing. “It’s part of our culture. We understand that the lava is flowing and it can go anywhere at any time and that has helped us from a tourism standpoint in being able to talk about having the most active volcano on the planet.”

Respectful tourism
According to Tarson, many of the tour companies in the area of Kilauea have closed their doors temporarily until the emergency is over, out of respect. “We on the Big Island do not see the need for making a profit when others are being displaced. That [being] said, there will be a time in the future when people can visit the lava, again, but now is definitely not that time.”

Birch echoed the words of operators in saying, however, that out of safety and respect for those that have been evacuated, now is absolutely not the time for visitors to come to that area, with the exception of utilizing local businesses that remain open. “When the lava begins to flow into an open area on public land, there will be round-the-clock opportunities to see it, but where it is now is off limits,” noting that it is still working its way through different communities.

Birch said while they have no idea what the end result will be of the lava path, just coming to the national park itself, once it’s reopened, is an incredible experience.

The Big Island welcomed 1.72 million total visitors last year, in terms of overnight stays. Hawaii Volcanoes Park itself had over 2 million visitors, which factors in cruise passengers, day-trippers from neighboring islands and local visitors. “Each year, on both scales, those numbers have been increasing for the last four to five years,” said Birch.

“The volcanic activity and the fact that we have the most active volcano has always been one of the top reasons for people to come to the island. It’s one of the things that separates us out not just from other destinations, but separates our island out as being special because it is something you can only do on this island.”

When asked whether he foresees this event as being less of a hindrance and more of a help to tourism for his island, Birch said, “The phenomenon is creating a lot of media and attraction that, once it dies down and becomes something that can be incorporated into a tour, I absolutely believe the buzz will still be there.”

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