Hawaii outbreak brings tourism boon during slow season

HILO, Hawaii (AP) – The spectacle of glowing lava spew from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa has drawn thousands of visitors and is becoming a tourism boon for this Big Island town near the world’s largest volcano.

Some hotels in and around Hilo are about to be fully booked at what is usually a slower time of year for business. Helicopter tours of Mauna Loa, which began erupting Sunday after being quiet for 38 years, are also in high demand among tourists and journalists.

“Right now it’s booming,” said Marian Somalinog, who staffs the front desk at the Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. “We’re sold out until after Christmas.”

She attributed the rise to people wanting to see the rivers of bright orange molten rock gushing from Mauna Loa, a shield volcano whose name means “Long Mountain” in Hawaiian. The glow from the eruption can be seen in the distance from parts of the hotel.

This time of year is usually a slow season for Hawaii’s travel industry, falling between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays.

But this week, thousands of cars have created traffic jams on Route 200, known as Saddle Road, which connects the cities of Hilo on the east side of Hawaii Island and Kailua-Kona on the west side.

Volcanic flows pose a potential future threat to the main artery, but is currently still several miles (kilometers) away and is not a danger to any community. This means that spectators can enjoy the spectacle while putting themselves in little danger. Tourists and locals are in the crowds, many taking pictures and taking selfies.

However, Somalinog has not bothered to join them.

“The traffic is crazy,” she said. “It’s not worth it.”

Brett Steen flew from Oahu to the island of Hawaii with his parents, who are visiting from Florida, on a trip booked months ago. The volcano began to erupt just before their arrival on the Big Island.

“It’s a bonus part of our trip,” Steen said. “We’re super excited to get out here.”

At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane said many visitors know about Mauna Loa but don’t realize that Kilauea, a smaller volcano, is also erupting — and that they can see both from several locations near the latter caldera.

“It hasn’t happened since 1984. It’s a really special time to be here,” Ferracane said.

The number of visitors to the park has not increased since Mauna Loa’s eruption began late Sunday, but she expects it to increase late next week in line with normal seasonal patterns.

Saddle Road, which is outside the park, may not remain a prime vantage point for long. The red-hot lava creeps towards it.

Ken Hon, scientist-in-charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said the flow has “declined significantly” and was 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) south of the highway on Thursday. At that rate, he said, it would be at least a week before it arrives.

“We don’t really know which way the lava flow will ultimately go,” Hon said.

Blocking the road would cause problems, especially for those who use it to commute from Hilo and other parts of the island’s east side, where housing is generally cheaper, to jobs on the west side, home to many of the major beach towns.

Unless some sort of bypass is built, commuters will have to take coastal routes to and from Kailua-Kona, adding at least an hour’s drive each way.

Steve Solberg, general manager of the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa in Kailua-Kona, said many guests have walked up Saddle Road to see the eruption. Some people canceled reservations at the resort because of the volcano, but they were intercepted by others who wanted to see the eruption.

“So it’s really kind of a wash at this point, but we expect it to be a very positive thing in the next week or so,” Solberg said.

He said if Saddle Road is closed, the dozen or so employees who live in Hilo will get rooms at the resort during their five-day work week so they don’t have to make the long commute each day.

Governor David Ige has issued an emergency proclamation to allow emergency responders to arrive quickly or limit access as needed. If lava crosses the highway, the Hawaii National Guard can help plan for alternatives and try to create bypass routes, the governor said.

Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984. The current eruption is its 34th since written records began in 1843. Its smaller neighbor, Kilauea, has been erupting since September 2021.

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McAvoy reported from Honolulu and Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon.

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