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Touring Hawaii After the Volcano Eruption

What you should know if you’re planning to visit the Big Island this fall

aerial view of Kilauea volcano

Manfred Thurig / Alamy Stock Photo

Kilauea erupting in May.

Poor Hawaii. It just can’t catch a break. First it was the dramatic eruption of Kilauea volcano on the island of Hawaii — the Big Island — that began in May. Then it was Hurricane Lane, which turned into a tropical storm that dropped 3 to 4 feet of torrential rain, resulting in flooding and landslides throughout the islands.

Visitors today will see little evidence of the storm, but the volcano's activity, which quieted in early August, has resulted in some changes for tourism on the Big Island. Here's what to know.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Most of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the must-see attraction on the Big Island, has been closed since May 11, when the eruption began. Two-thirds of it is still closed due to seismic activity, summit deflation and a possible steam explosion at the summit, which is in the park. You can't access the tourist favorite Halema'uma'u Crater. Eleven areas within the 333,308-acre park are expected to reopen on Sept. 22, including the Kilauea Visitor Center, Crater Rim Trail and Chain of Craters Road, pending a continued pause in volcanic activity.

With so much fire damage and continuing tremors, though, officials say the park is unlikely to be back to normal anytime soon: “There will be parts of the park that will not be open for many years — or maybe never at all,” Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando said.

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That doesn't mean people should avoid it altogether: The Kahuku Unit, an often-overlooked 116,000-acre area about an hour’s drive south of the park’s main entrance, never closed; it is still open Wednesday through Sunday. Rangers are offering guided hikes and explaining the volcano's history and recent activity. (Check the park’s website for updated information on closures.)

The rest of the island

Only 1 percent of the Big Island’s 4,028 square miles has been affected by the volcano’s lava flow, and the two main airports have remained open, yet some tourists have canceled or delayed plans to visit this summer and fall. The number of travelers to the island in July was 12.7 percent lower than last July, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority — though visitor numbers were up in the state overall, suggesting that some people who would have gone to the Big Island changed plans and visited other islands instead.

One Big Island bed-and-breakfast owner, Ricardo Zepeda, says he had visitors cancel reservations — even some not scheduled to arrive until 2019. He emailed guests to reassure them that there's no danger from the lava flow, and that the eruption has had no effect on the air quality in Hilo; now he reports his establishment is back to normal occupancy. (Some people are more eager to visit now, curious to see the results of the volcanic activity).

Rainbow Falls

Laszlo Podor / Getty Images

Rainbow Falls on the Island of Hawaii.

The tourist spots that are still hurting are those located very near the volcano; restaurants and other businesses in the towns of Volcano and Hilo have far fewer visitors than is typical in late summer and fall, since there are far fewer people coming to the park. For example, Volcano Winery in the town of Volcano, adjacent to the national park, is holding half as many wine tastings as it usually does, says Lani Delapenia, the winery’s tasting room manager.

Other businesses here stayed busy throughout the summer: Tourists need something to do with the closures in the National Park, which usually welcomes some 2 million people a year.

While the volcano was at its fiery peak in June and July, Lava Ocean Tours — “your front row seat to feel the heat” — which launches from Hilo, had a surge of visitors signing up for tours to view the lava spewing into the sea (though they began giving it a wide berth in mid-July after a boatload of visitors was hit by lava bombs, causing some injuries). There are fewer people interested in those tours since the flow has stopped, but the company is now busy with its waterfall and dolphin tours.

Maunakea Visitor Information Station, an astronomy center on the Big Island that's a beautiful place to view the night sky, has been drawing huge crowds of tourists — many of whom might have otherwise signed on to the now-unavailable stargazing tours at the national park.   

Even without access to much of the national park, the Big Island is still a magical place, islanders say, with plenty to do and see, from snorkeling among sea turtles and exploring the Punalu'u Black Sand Beach to touring the island's famous Kona coffee plantations and visiting the 442-foot Akaka Falls at Akaka Falls State Park. And some in the tourist industry are looking at the bright side of the park's closure, including Tony DeLellis, co-owner of KapohoKine Adventures, which is offering helicopter rides and snorkeling tours. The disruption encourages businesses here to find imaginative ways to attract visitors, he says, and show them that “Hawaii island has always been more than Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.”

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