Hawaiʻi Volcanoes Park Seeing Visitors Return But Popularity Poses Issues

May 6, 2019

The Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is home to Kīlauea, the world’s most active volcano. Its eruption last year and the earthquakes and ash explosions that followed forced the park to close for four months. With the eruption now over, visitors have been returning in droves again. Officials see this as an opportunity to plan for better management of the park for the future. 

On a recent day, the Kīlauea Visitors’ Center was packed with tourists eager to explore Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. More than 90 percent of the park is back online since last year’s volcanic eruption caused a four-month closure.  

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park guide gives visitors an orientation of the island's volcanoes at the Kilauea Visitors' Center.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“We’re in the beginning of the recovery process,” says Rhonda Loh, the park’s acting superintendent.

She says most of the damage to the park came not from spewing lava but from more than 60,000 earthquakes at the Kīlauea Summit.

“And that took its toll on the infrastructure on the roads and the trails on the buildings and we had to close the park. It wasn’t safe,” says Loh.

The closing cost the park hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

“I think the uncertainty was the hardest part. People were prepared maybe for a two-week dislocation of the norm but the months when it stretched out… that was a challenging time for everybody,” says Loh.

With as many as two million visitors a year, the park pumps nearly $170 million annually into the local economy. But Loh says finding quiet solitude in the park is more difficult than ever. 

“Prior to the eruptive events in May, we were actually seeing unprecedented numbers of visitors, very large increases which was great – economically for the community,” says Loh. “But we were losing that ‘a-ha’ moment that visitors like to come to the park to be immersed by nature."

Loh sees the eruption as a reset button – an opportunity to better manage the increasingly popular visitor attraction.