Steve Bagwell and his family rose well before dawn on Friday morning to catch a tour van and head up Mauna Kea, a volcano on Hawai`i Island.
Mauna Kea is not that volcano, the one that’s erupting and wreaking havoc on parts of Hawai`i Island. The tallest of Hawai`i’s volcanic mountains, Mauna Kea hasn’t erupted for 4,500 years—since about 2,482 B.C.
“Driving up, we ran into the marine layer but once you get up above that, it was clear. The star gazing was great,” Bagwell, visiting from Oklahoma, told The Daily Beast. “Then, it was a great sunrise with high clouds and low clouds and the sun coming between them.”
Bagwell’s hoping he got some great photographs. “I took enough,” he said.
It’s the kind of story Hawai`i tourism authorities are hoping to hear more of after devastating volcanic eruptions on the southeast side of the island at Kīlauea stalled Hawai`i’s tourism business, the state’s number one economic driver, right as the busy summer season was expected to kick into gear.
And it’s an industry the island critically needs. Hawai`i reported record totals across numerous categories in the visitor industry in 2017. This year was on pace to top those numbers. Total visitor arrivals for the first quarter across the state notched up 9.4 percent to total 2,478,604 visitors. Now, Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawai`i Visitors Bureau says the island’s wholesalers and hotel partners are reporting a slow-down of bookings—apparently due to fears of catastrophic volcanic destruction.
Before departing Oklahoma for Hawai`i, Bagwell had heard about the ash plume rising tens of thousands of feet from the island’s youngest volcano. He’d heard about the new eruptions along the lowest east rift zone that’s resulted in dozens of fissures popping up in neighborhoods, estuaries of lava flowing to the sea in three locations, and the evacuation of a couple thousand people from their homes.
“People were like, ‘Are you going to cancel your trip?’ and I was like, ‘No,’” Bagwell said.
Bagwell remembers as a child in the early 1970s watching news of an earlier Kīlauea eruption. He was fascinated. “Kīlauea’s not like Mt. St. Helens [in Washington],” he continued. “Where it’s an explosive eruption and if you’re within 50 miles, your life is in danger. So I was not concerned at all about it.”
But other travelers to Hawai`i are concerned.
Jason Cohn, vice president of sales and marketing for Hawai`i Forest & Trail, the company that escorted Bagwell and his family to the summit of Mauna Kea, said people are calling to ask if the island is covered in noxious gas (it’s not), whether the recent earthquakes will stir other volcanoes to life (they’re not), if it’s safe to travel to Hawai`i (it is), if there are any airport delays (there are not).
Officials with Hawai`i Tourism Authority have been firing off press releases trying to quell fears and stem losses, with similar messaging: Hawai`i is safe. Hawai`i is fun. You should come here.
It’s a classic exercise in crisis management. In one such prepared statement, Hawai`i’s Governor David Ige said, “All of Hawai`i is open for business and welcoming visitors with the hospitality, aloha, warmth and picturesque settings visitors seek in our islands. This includes Hilo, Pāhoa and the Kona and Kohala coasts on the island of Hawai`i. The one area that people need to avoid is lower Puna where the eruption is ongoing.”
Even volcanologists have stepped in trying to calm people’s fears. U.S. Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall was quoted in a press release, saying, “I would not hesitate to come to Hawai`i. If you’re coming to enjoy the beaches or eat the delicious food, know it’s [the eruption’s] happening in a small, eastern edge of the island.”
It’s worth noting the eruption site is currently concentrated in 10 square miles in a 4,028-square-mile island that measures 60 miles long and 30 miles wide. The car drive from Kīlauea to the tourist destination of Kona takes approximately two hours.
Based on the number of press releases addressing it, air quality appears to be the primary concern of would-be visitors. Stovall pointed out that laze, a natural process when hot lava hits the ocean and emits hydrochloric acid and steam mixed with particles of glass into the air, has been occurring over the past 35 years whenever Kīlauea’s lava flow reaches the ocean.
Vog—volcanic smog—has been around that long, too. Vog has created a visible haze from the release of sulfur dioxide mixed with sunlight, atmospheric oxygen, moisture, and dust.
According to Bagwell, “Somebody on the tour made the comment that the haze is probably worse in Southern California than it is here right now with an active volcano.”
He can thank Hawai`i’s characteristic northeast trade winds for that. When they whip up, vog gets blown off the island to the southwest. But when they slow or switch directions, vog is more present and can be an eye and throat irritant to some people.
Another thing Kīlauea is making clear is a misunderstanding of the state’s geography. Outrigger Hotels and Resorts’ Chief Marketing Officer Sean Dee reports summer room bookings are soft across the state, an indication that some visitors are even hesitant to travel to other Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian Island archipelago is made up of eight main islands. The state’s government seat of Honolulu and iconic beach of Waikiki is located on O’ahu, 120 miles away from Kīlauea, which sits on the largest of the islands, known as Hawai`i Island.
“Visitors to Hawai`i can be assured that the volcanic activity is having no effect whatsoever on the other islands, O‘ahu, Maui, Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i and Kaua‘i,” the governor advised. “Visitors can book their trips comfortable in the knowledge that their vacation experience will provide all the enjoyment they expect when coming to our beautiful islands.”
Volcano watching is big business. In 2017, just over 2 million people visited Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. For some like Bagwell, fascinated by volcanoes, Kīlauea’s recent activity draws them like chasers to tornadoes. Even Cohn admits the pull. “Me? As a local,” he said. “I wanted to get in a helicopter immediately.”
In a Hawai`i Forest & Trail Facebook pool, 91 percent of 395 people responded they are not changing their vacation plans. Either their followers are well-educated, or they are more adventurous than most. Likely, both.
Right now, however, there are no approved land-based lava viewing opportunities. The summit at Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park is closed. Access to eruption areas in the lower east rift zone are road-blocked and restricted to residents only, enforced by the National Guard. The Office of the Mayor Harry Kim recommends the safest place to view the eruptions is “at home on your computer, mobile device, or television.”
However, at night, the glow from the lower east rift zone eruption can be seen 25 miles away from hilltops in Hilo. And Bagwell said, “From atop Mauna Kea, you can see the glow from the light of the molten lava—it looks like a small sunrise.”
Several licensed tour boat operators are permitted to approach the coastline where lava is meeting the ocean. (Warning: It’s pricey.) And while helicopter viewing is possible, temporary flight restrictions exclude approach from within five nautical miles of the eruption areas. That’s not to say mind-blowing views are not possible. (Warning: Also pricey.)
As the eruption changes, so, too, will viewing opportunities. Eventually, Hawai`i Forest & Trail hopes to have a new volcano viewing tour, and Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park will reopen.
The heartwarming question that visitors are also asking, according to Cohn, is, “How can we help?” An out-pouring of assistance has come from both visitors and the local Hawai`i Island community.
“That’s the thing that’s been hard for us because in one sense we’re volcano nerds and super fascinated and excited about it,” Cohn said. “On the other end, our business is greatly threatened and affected by this and people are losing their homes so it’s hard to rectify the two sides.”
During the first couple weeks as new fissures opened, Hawai`i Forest & Trail offered their tour vans to help residents evacuate. They also coordinated with Red Cross to rescue pets that had initially been left behind. If people want to help, Cohn recommends Pu`uhonua o Puna and the Salvation Army.
If anyone is still having any linger doubts about visiting Hawai`i, Bagwell offers one last piece of advice. “If people are concerned, they shouldn’t be,” he said. “They should come on. Other than a little haze in the air, they wouldn’t know anything was happening.”