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Big Isle tourism industry feels sting of government shutdown


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Washington, D.C.’s political discord hit Hawaii Island right in the pocketbook Tuesday, with some of the island’s biggest tourist attractions shutting down after Congress failed on Monday to reach an agreement on federal funding.

Park rangers stood in front of the entrance at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Tuesday to turn away visitors, said park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane, one of 13 employees who were on the grounds to get the word out about the closure and to shut down the offices.

Between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., rangers were scheduled to stand at the entrance to the park and inform visitors they could not enter — a job the rangers weren’t thrilled about doing, she said.

“Everyone’s very disappointed, and we are, too,” Ferracane said. “It’s not a happy day when you have to tell people who have saved up a lot of money to come out here that they can’t come in. It’s not a fun job.”

The park sees an average of about 4,500 visitors each day, and by 11 a.m. Tuesday rangers had turned away about 100 guests seeking access to the park.

Kilauea Military Camp, cabins and campsites in the national park also were shut down.

Meanwhile, the historic Volcano House hotel, perched on the rim of Kilauea Caldera, was forced to shut its doors mere months after its eagerly anticipated reopening following an extensive renovation and management change, said General Manager Rudy Fao.

“We’re just watching the news and hoping for the best at this point,” he said Tuesday afternoon.

Hotel guests were notified several days ago that they would have to find alternative lodging, and one final group remains at the hotel and was expected to check out this morning, he said.

“We haven’t been accepting new guests in anticipation,” Fao said. “This is definitely going to have a huge impact on our company, and obviously we’re going to have a skeleton crew here beginning Thursday. A lot of our employees will probably have to file for unemployment if this goes on. … They (Congress) really threw a curveball at us.”

Fao added that some employees were to remain on the grounds through this morning while the guests were still in the building. Afterward, some employees would continue to man the phones to deal with questions from the public.

“We’ve had probably 30 calls today about the closure,” he said Tuesday.

The closure of the national parks on the Big Island also was a concern for tour operator Roberts Hawaii, said President and Chief Operating Officer Percy Higashi. The timing was especially difficult, as Hilo was set to welcome on Tuesday morning the 2,250 passengers aboard the Pride of America cruise ship.

“Our General Manager Edmund Yamagata, he really took charge of this, and made suggestions for us, what we might be able to do with Volcanoes National Park closing,” Higashi said Tuesday afternoon.

Higashi said that the company offered to its clients a trip to ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center to take the place of their regularly scheduled trip to HVNP. He said “100 percent” of the guests accepted.

“I really put it down to our guests understanding the situation,” he said.

The company also offered to sightseers on the west side of the island a trip to the Kona Coffee Living History Farm to take the place of a trip to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, also known as the Place of Refuge.

Each year, Higashi said, Roberts Hawaii serves about 20,000 visitors to Hawaii Island, with the vast majority specifically seeking trips to the national parks. As a result, the current shutdown could end up having a significant impact.

“At this point, we don’t feel there’s been an impact yet, but obviously we’re wondering the length of time this shutdown will continue,” Higashi said. “… Speaking for all our employees, we’d just like this to be ended.”

Similar difficulties were experienced at federally funded attractions across the state.

On Oahu, boats aren’t taking visitors out to see the sunken hull of the battleship Arizona.

Of the 39 National Park Service employees at Pearl Harbor, all but four are being told to stay home. Those who remain are staying on solely for security and emergency purposes.

Normally, more than 4,000 people visit the USS Arizona Memorial each day.

The state’s tourism agency issued a statement noting Hawaii’s state and county parks, beaches and trails are still open.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority said it will monitor the shutdown and how it might affect Hawaii and the industry.

On the northern edge of the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said coral reef researchers and cultural practitioners with permits to visit small islands within the Papahanaumokuakea monument won’t be able to go there later this week if the shutdown continues.

Many wildlife programs also have been suspended amid the shutdown.

Hawaiian monk seals, a critically endangered species, should be able to get help if they are accidentally caught by a fish hook, however. An unofficial Facebook page for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program says several nonfederal staff are prepared to respond to monk seal emergencies.

Uniformed military personnel are still working, but the shutdown sent thousands of civilians home early.

At Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, about 2,900 workers — or two-thirds of the civilian workforce — are being furloughed. The shipyard is the state’s largest industrial employer.

Those remaining are primarily performing maintenance work on eight submarines that must deploy within 90 days, shipyard spokeswoman Jensin Sommer said.

Three submarines currently in dry dock, meanwhile, won’t be repaired.

“Any day that you delay work on any ship repair is significant, and it only grows more so the longer the shutdown continues,” Sommer said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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