By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The ongoing partial federal shutdown is providing helicopter operators, and some tourists, with nowhere to go but up.
While other tourist-oriented businesses are being hit, the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park during the shutdown is causing visitors hoping to get a view of the park and the lava flowing from Pu‘u ‘O‘o to flock to helicopter tours.
“We have seen helicopter companies receiving a large bulk of the business,” said Ross Birch, Big Island Visitors Bureau executive director.
The air tours are still allowed to fly over authorized areas of the park while it’s closed. And, except for a lengthy hike over rough terrain, they provide the only way to get close to the active lava flows.
“We are definitely seeing a lift that would appear related to the closure of the national park,” said Rob Payesko, director of business development for Paradise Helicopters.
Payesko estimated the increase to be about 15 percent when compared to this time last year.
“We’ve seen an increase from both our Kona and Hilo side,” he said.
Still, Payesko called it a “mixed blessing,” adding that a lengthy park closure could result in fewer visitors coming to the Big Isle.
David Johnson, flight coordinator for Safari Aviation, estimated the increase in sales for his company at about 30 percent.
“It’s usually a little slower this time of year,” he said.
“It’s generated a great deal of interest.”
Mia Sloma was taking a helicopter tour from Hilo International Airport on Wednesday and said she is hoping to be able to visit the park soon.
“I was going to do both,” she said.
“I’ve traveled all the way from Denmark and I really hope it’s going to be open.”
Birch said he is concerned that a lengthy shutdown will cause more visitors to reconsider their trip.
Dave Cary, who lives in Virginia, said during a phone interview that he is visiting the Big Isle shortly and planned on spending several days exploring the park.
He said he may have reconsidered if he knew the park was closed before booking.
“It’s a good possibility we would have postponed until later and gone someplace else,” Cary said.
The park on average sees about 4,500 visitors a day when it’s open.
Some of those visitors appear to be going to the lava viewing area in Kalapana, operated by Hawaii County, instead.
The number of daily visitors has increased from between 250 and 300 per day to as much as 800 since the shutdown began, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Jan-Guard Hawaii Inc., which the county contracts with to staff the viewing area, has added five working hours to each day in response, said Mark Kunzer, human resources specialist for Parks and Recreation.
He estimated the extra cost to the county to be $300 a day.
While more popular, the viewing area is still a good distance away from the active lava flow, with only a distant glow or smoke visible, Kunzer said.
“They are only catching the glow from the venting,” he said.
“But that’s better than anywhere else.”
The closure, which began Oct. 1, has not been good news for the non-air tour operators, which have had to make adjustments, and businesses near the park.
National historic sites are also impacted.
Kilauea Lodge in Volcano has lost several lodging and dinner reservations as a result, said Janet Coney, office manager.
“We’ve had a handful,” she said. “We’re also trying to encourage people to come and do other activities.”
The lodge has also had to cut back hours for its staff as a result, Coney said.
She said some visitors have planned the trip for months.
“They get here and can’t go into the park,” Coney said. “That’s one of the main reasons they come here.”
A majority of KapohoKine Adventures’ tours go to the park, said guide Laura Crigler.
Some have been redirected to Kalapana, she said.
“It’s kind of changed it to a southeast rift zone tour instead of going into the national park,” Crigler said.
“We are doing our best to reschedule and get people on board with new tours,” she added.
Jessica Ferracane, park spokeswoman, said the rangers that remain on duty continue to turn people away from the main entrance.
The number turned away each day has dropped from hundreds at the start to 27 vehicles Tuesday, she said.
“The majority of those are international visitors,” Ferracane said.
“People are really starting to get frustrated,” she added, with some returning days later only to be turned away again.
A few had entered the park before being stopped, Ferracane said, but no citations are being given for drivers who accidentally drive in.
“We deal with them very gently,” she said.
Birch said the number of calls from visitors asking whether the park is open has also declined since the start of the shutdown.
“Our message is that everything else is open for business,” he said.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.