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The Volcano Industry Can Deal With an Eruption or Two
July 30, 2023

The Volcano Industry Can Deal With an Eruption or Two

Reading Time: 6 minutes

When the Highest-Threat Volcano in the U.S. Erupts, It’s Great for Tourism, The harder part is managing the expectations of lava-loving tourists., Hawaii Kilauea volcano tours: How the local tourism industry deals with eruptions, lava flows, and the visito

This is part of Airplane Mode, a series on the business—and pleasure—of travel right now.

In June 2023, Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano erupted, with a crowd of tourists standing less than a mile away. They had no idea what they were in for. ‘It’s a completely average day and nobody is expecting anything,’ says Jason Cohn, president of tour company Hawaii Forest and Trail, describing the event.

A tour group had journeyed to the rim of the crater and listened to the guide’s spiel about the famous eruption of 1969, when Kilauea spewed a fountain of liquid magma taller than the Empire State Building. Some were entranced; others, bored.

Then came a bunch of little earthquakes. ‘Crack! The Earth actually opens up,’ says Cohn, relating the tale from one of his company’s guides. Long fissures spewed steam—and then, walls of lava a hundred feet tall. ‘Suddenly, this crater floor fills with bright orange liquid rock.’

‘Volcano eruption’ might bring to mind Mount St. Helens in 1980, with its mushroom cloud. But Kilauea is a runny volcano, says Zane Smith, who owns Hawaii Geo Tours (and saw his own hometown of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, coated in Mount St. Helens’ ash when he was 8). Instead of clogging and exploding, Kilauea oozes. ‘We say it’s Hawaiian-style lava,’ says Katie Molzer, who has been leading tours for 12 years with Hawaii Outdoor Guides. ‘It’s more easygoing.’

Kilauea’s laid-back lava makes for quite a show—and a tourism-friendly one. ‘In most places in the world, when a volcano erupts, you run for your life. But in Hawaii, you pack a lunch and you drive right toward it,’ says Cohn. And for decades in Hawaii, a volcano was always erupting. Starting in 1983 Kilauea oozed lava for 35 years straight, in what was known as the Pu’u’ō’ō eruption. For most of that time, the lava flow stayed in the same general area, making it easy to plan trips: Tourists could snap photos against the volcano’s orange glow at night, take in an aerial view from a helicopter, or even watch lava falling from cliffs into the ocean.

In 2018 Kilauea’s lava changed course, decimating a residential neighborhood. Then, the eruption completely stopped.

When it came back, it was in fits and spurts—and it was spurting in different places. Some tourists who come to Kilauea see orange-hot lava; others are left to wander through old lava tubes and imagine what the lava would look like if it were still flowing. The fickleness of the volcano has scrambled the industry that had built up around it. Some outfits shuttered entirely. For the ones that survived, the already-complicated job of working with an active volcano has become even trickier.

When the volcano is erupting, booking requests surge by a factor of three or four, says Cohn, with operators scrambling to catch up. When possible, they add more tours, but, with a limited roster of guides, they also wind up turning people away. And not everyone who books a tour during an eruption will get to see fresh lava. ‘Those weeks after an eruption ends,’ he says, ‘they get on the van and they’re just really jazzed to see an erupting volcano for the first time. And we have to break the bad news.’

Cohn lets people down gently with nuanced intrigue. Anything can happen, he says—sometimes that means an eruption, sometimes a run-in with a nene, Hawaii’s endemic goose. Ellen Grace Silvestre, who runs a two-person tour company called Discover Paradise Adventures, takes a blunter approach. ‘The immediate question they ask is ‘Is it erupting?’ ‘ she says. ‘So, you just tell them right away, ‘No, it’s not. Yes, it is.’ ‘

If guests can’t see 100-foot-tall walls of fire, she says, they can still walk around on dried lava lakes, and see beautiful views of landscapes shaped by recent volcanic activity. ‘The trick to this industry,’ Silvestre says, ‘is you underpromise and overdeliver.’

Even when there is an active eruption, it can still register as a letdown. ‘People think volcano erupting,” Molzer says, ‘they’re thinking lava adventure.’ But lava may not always be close enough to see, or it simply may not be what guests are imagining—particularly if they grew up watching volcano movies. ‘I’ve never seen Dante’s Peak, but people on my tours talk about Dante’s Peak all the time,’ Molzer says. She has seen lava lakes, lava fountains, and even a lavanado—a spinning pillar of hot air, ash, and lava, technically called a whirlwind—but always at a safe distance. Like most guides, she zooms in with a telescopic lens mounted on her cellphone.

While most tour operators stay within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park rules, some tour operators take a different approach to disappointment, scouting for lava at any cost.

‘There’s definitely people who do things outside the law,’ says Molzer. Kilauea may seem friendly, but the volcano is still plenty dangerous. Geologists have stepped in still-molten lava that looked solid. One guide died while leading a tour near an active lava flow after the lava released toxic steam clouds when it rained. And a lava boat on the coast—allegedly operating outside its permitted area to get closer to falling lava—had lava fall on it. ‘It hit a woman. Basically hit her in the lap,’ says Molzer.

When fresh lava has recently ceased, operators have new incentives for risk-taking. As lava cooled a few years ago, ‘we would hike out to get so close to lava you could poke it with a stick,’ says Molzer. But getting there meant an eight-hour hike. ‘I hear in Iceland they have the same problem,’ she says. When the lava shifted, it was no longer easily accessible to most visitors.

On the flip side, sometimes the lava gets too close. In the 2018 eruption—the last burst in 35 years of consistent activity—Kilauea changed course, destroying more than 700 buildings. The United States Geological Survey ranks Kilauea the highest-threat volcano in the U.S., given the frequency of its eruptions and its proximity to people.

A series of earthquakes related to the 2018 eruption—including a 6.9—meant that popular tour locations like lava tubes and overlook roads were closed while the park checked for damage. ‘I know multiple companies that went out of business during that time,’ says Molzer. The 2018 eruption also brought a layer of sulfuric vog—volcanic smog—that changed weather patterns. Molzer says she could barely see her neighbor’s house ‘because of how voggy it was,’ and the next summer’s lychee season came a month late.

Looking for new sources of revenue, Silvestre says, some people started leading tours around—or taking videos of—the Kapoho area, where 612 homes were destroyed when the lava flow shifted course. ‘People are mourning,’ Silvestre says. ‘I’d rather surf than make money for the wrong reasons.’ Helicopter operators also faced temporary air restrictions over the volcano; Silvestre says some began flying over residential areas instead, angering locals. The lull in lava visibility that followed the 2018 eruption continued through the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, cruise ship tourism shut down as well. ‘I lost all my jobs,’ says Silvestre, who also works as a nail technician and a massage therapist.

The volcano didn’t start up again until December 2020, when a normal lake in the crater boiled off and was replaced by a lava lake in a major crater. Silvestre started leading tours again in June 2021. ‘By that time,’ she says, ‘I was so thirsty to work!’ Tourists were similarly desperate to travel—particularly on small tours with less COVID risk, and particularly to Hawaii, since many international destinations were still closed. ‘Tourism came back with a vengeance,’ Silvestre says.

One change post-pandemic is the increased availability of flights from across the country. ‘Five years ago, about 80 percent of my guests were West Coast people,’ says Smith. Now people are coming to Hawaii from around the U.S. That influx of guests has brought the need for more expectation management—although, thankfully, Molzer says, people seem to have finally figured out that the volcano is no longer erupting all the time.

It has also brought back all of the more mundane challenges of the volcano tourism industry, which are the same challenges faced in much of the outdoor tourism industry: Guides worry about guests falling off cliffs and stumbling getting into vans. There’s a frustration with tourists among the subset of local Hawaiians who would prefer fewer of them or none at all, fueled in part by the inevitable handful who disrespect Kilauea by pulling stunts like pissing into her craters. And for guides—since the volcano is far from the resorts—guests mean lots and lots of driving. For Smith, who was a geologist before becoming a guide, that’s the hard part. ‘I worked 25 years by myself,’ says Smith. ‘Now I drive 12 people around in a Mercedes van every day.’

On the upside, says Cohn, this June’s eruption ‘was one of the larger lava lakes in my lifetime, and one of the easiest to see.’ Anyone, he says, ‘avid hiker or in a wheelchair,’ could get a view. Since the industry has right-sized a bit since 2018, Molzer says, there is still plenty of demand even when the volcano momentarily stops erupting.

With the return of the tourists, guides also get to do what they love best: showing people Kilauea. This January, Molzer led a tour for a child and his parents through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. ‘It was this child’s wish to see a volcano,’ says Molzer. She told them that the volcano wasn’t erupting, and they cheerfully accepted, just happy to be there. Then, as they hiked along the side of the caldera, they felt an earthquake. ‘About an hour later, a lot of lava started to come up out of the mountain,’ Molzer says.

They watched the eruption that evening, ablaze against the night sky. ‘They were really excited,’ says Molzer. ‘It was people who deserved a volcano.’


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