While the photos and videos of the popping, churning, spewing lava from Kilauea volcano look post-apocalyptic, officials with the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau say that the danger zones are isolated to private, residential areas and they don’t expect an impact on travelers.
“Really, almost 90 percent of the island is unaffected,” says Ross Birch, executive director of the Hawaii Island Visitors and Convention Bureau. Birch says that visitors’ safety concerns should be minimal, assuming they keep their distance from areas that are under evacuation orders, which include the subdivisions Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens, located near the town of Pahoa, about 20 miles southeast of Hilo. “Slipping in the tub at the hotel is just as likely as any danger coming from the volcano to the majority of the tourism spots, including Hilo, itself,” he says. “Hilo is the closest area that has hotels and it’s really unaffected.”
After declaring an emergency for the County of Hawaii, Gov. David Ige issued a statement to reassure people. “We have heard from people around the world concerned about Hawaii’s welfare and want to reassure everyone that this is limited to a remote region on the slopes of Kilauea volcano. Everywhere else in the Hawaiian Islands is not affected,” he said.
Kilauea has been erupting since 1983. The latest flow, which is in an area along the lower Eastern Rift Zone, is coming from new fissures in the volcano. “The flow has just changed location,” says Birch.
Since the flow began Thursday, it has destroyed close to 35 homes. According to the United States Geological Survey, more than 1,000 earthquakes have occurred in the last week. While most of those have been small, one temblor reached a magnitude of 6.9 on Friday afternoon. Officials have also expressed concerns about the noxious gases released into the air, which can be dangerous.
Birch says that the eruption is “extremely dangerous” for those who live near the area of impact. But he adds that it’s important to keep things in perspective: “That immediate area is less than 10 square miles. The island is 4,028 square miles,” he says.
On Friday, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park closed following a series of earthquakes. The park reopened partially Sunday afternoon, and visitors are cautioned to expect changing conditions. On Monday, all public schools on the island were open. Birch says that hotels and businesses are open, as well. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction around the activity, up to 3,000 above sea level (while that warning may impact some helicopter tour flights, it’s not expected to impede commercial flights on and off the island).
Birch said that living on an island with three active volcanoes comes with risks, as well as rewards. The volcanoes are, after all, a powerful tourist draw. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park sees nearly 2 million visitors a year. In 2016, when lava from Kilauea began pouring into the sea, lava boat tours became popular (it stopped flowing into the ocean in late 2017). Three years ago, a lava flow was approaching the town of Pahoa, causing concern that the area could be cut off from the island. Today, Birch says the town draws tourists who want to see the marks of where the lava flowed.
With the latest eruption, companies such as Paradise Helicopters, which leads helicopter lava tours, along with other tours, is seeing an increase in interest since Thursday. The company flies outside of the restricted zone, and all of its tours are still available, according to CEO Calvin Dorn. Dorn says that while visitors want to see the action, it’s disheartening to see neighbors in need. “We are looking for ways to fly some of these residents who want to view their home from above,” he says. “We will also be working with relief agencies to get donations and supplies to those displaced.”
For many people who live in Hawaii, the activity is a double-edged sword, says Birch. “If the volcano is doing things in a certain area that’s supportive of the tourism industry we actually have a great opportunity,” he says. “When it comes into a neighborhood or it’s affecting our residents, then it’s pretty much off limits for a little while.”