May 9, 2018 / 10:16 AM / 16 days ago

Latest eruption a disaster for Hawaiian town's lava tourism

PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) - A little lava was good for business in Pahoa, Hawaii during Kalauea’s frequent eruptions over the past 35 years, say people who make a living from tourists who flocked to the town to see one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

FILE PHOTO - A resident of the Leilani Estates subdivision takes photos of a lava flow near his home during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

They mainly came to see the Kalapana flow, a stream of lava that flows from one of Kalauea’s craters and cuts through an abandoned town of the same name on its way to the sea.

Kerry Kelly, 70, a longtime resident of Pahoa, said the area saw a “huge” uptick in revenue as a result of the “Kalapana flow”. It began in 1991, pouring into the streets, igniting homes, and burying everything in a layer of thick volcanic rock.

The lava flow became a major tourist draw, pulling hundreds of visitors a day. Residents began running tours by boat, bicycle and off-road vehicles. Vendors set up food stands.

Then it stopped a few months ago, Kelly said. The latest series of eruptions, quakes and clouds of toxic sulphur that has forced hundreds of people to evacuate has made things worse.

“Business was already dropping, and then to have this happen ... This is not just a physical disaster,” said Kelly. “We’re bordering on an economic disaster.”

Business has all but petered out, said Arianna Arakaki, 21, who manages Pele’s Kitchen, a popular restaurant.

“As soon as the lava started going off, business dropped off because everyone started saving money,” said Arakaki, a native Hawaiian who worships Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess.

Lava tourism was essential to Pele’s Kitchen, such as a flow that approached the town in 2014. Tour boat operators would bring visitors to the restaurant for breakfast after sunrise viewing trips, she said.

Steam rises from a new fissure in Puna, Hawaii, U.S. in this still image from video taken on May 8, 2018. Apau Hawaii Tours/Social Media via REUTERS

“I’m pretty used to lava flowing, but this is different. When people you know are losing their homes, it’s different,” Arakaki said.

The semi-rural wooded area had also become a magnet for newcomers looking to settle on the Big Island of Hawaii, home to about 200,000 people, who were prepared to risk living near an active volcano for more affordable real estate.

Hawaii’s 4,028-sq.-mile (10,432-sq.-km) Big Island accounts for less than a fifth of the state’s tourism. State data show that in the first three months of 2018, it pulled in 16 percent of the $4.8 billion visitors spent in Hawaii, less than half of levels in Oahu and Maui.

Amedeo Markoff, 49, runs an art gallery and a group promoting Pahoa tourism and business. “What a time to be that guy,” he said.

For now the eruption was “a business disaster,” said Markoff, although he has seen a few disaster tourists straggle into town.

But he is cautiously optimistic the eruption will draw more tourist dollars to the area, just as the Kalapana flow did after devastating that town.

“Our town is at the epicenter of an amazing, phenomenal spectacle,” he said. “It does put us in focus.”

But he added, “Any benefits to the community are far outweighed by the trauma to the community.”

Reporting by Terray Sylvester; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Clarence Fernandez

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