Hawaii's Woes Mount

April 14, 2008

A trip to the Aloha State suddenly seems a lot less welcoming in the wake of a monumental run of bad luck to begin 2008.

We're not talking about a string of small setbacks, either. America's paradise in the Pacific has been hit by a wave of misfortune so big it puts the towering curls of the Banzai Pipeline -- the North Shore's surfing mecca -- to shame.

In two months, Hawaii's tourism industry has lost two cruise ships and a pair of airlines. As if those setbacks weren't enough, Mother Earth has chipped in recently as well, ramping up the action at Kilauea volcano on the Big Island.

While the aftershocks of the recent shuttering of both Aloha and ATA airlines are sure to cause lingering problems, Hawaii tourism officials are by no means waving the white flag. The islands will bounce back (Hawaii's lure as a vacation destination is undeniable), though for the moment simply getting to Hawaii from the mainland U.S. -- by air or by sea -- has become a bigger challenge and, almost certainly, a more expensive proposition.

Norwegian Cruise Line's decision in February to pull the 2,224-passenger Pride of Hawaii out of the region because of heavy financial losses got the ball rolling -- in the wrong direction. The other lei dropped shortly thereafter when NCL announced that Pride of Aloha will soon follow suit, transferring out of Hawaii effective May 11 to sail itineraries in Asia for parent company Star Cruises. Those moves leave NCL America with just one ship, Pride of America, to serve the Hawaii cruise market.

Still reeling from that dissolution of the NCL America triumvirate, tourism in the islands was dealt another one-two punch just two weeks ago -- this time back-to-back blows to Hawaii's air travel inventory.

Aloha Airlines, one of Hawaii's primary providers of trans-Pacific and interisland flights, ceased operations on March 31 after filing for bankruptcy for the second time in two years. ATA, another major carrier with service between Hawaii and the mainland, filed for Chapter 11 just three days later, closing up shop suddenly on April 3.

The unexpected double-whammy wreaked havoc on travel to and from the islands as many vacationers booked on the belly-up airlines found themselves stranded as they scrambled to find return flights with other carriers.

Cruisers booked on Hawaii sailings this month were among those affected. NCL responded swiftly, however, rebooking flights for about 200 guests who had made travel arrangements through the cruise line and were set to fly with Aloha.

Royal Caribbean, whose Radiance of the Seas is scheduled for a May 13 itinerary from Honolulu, said this week that passengers booking travel for that Hawaii sailing through RCI were not affected because the cruise line does not partner with either Aloha or ATA.

Cruise passengers who booked flights to Hawaii onboard Aloha or ATA independently and have not yet rebooked or arranged for a refund are urged to contact their travel agent or credit card company as soon as possible. The Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau Web site is an excellent resource for information and contact numbers.

In more corporate chivalry, airlines such as United, Southwest, U.S. Airways and Hawaiian Airlines played the white knights, riding in to ostensibly save the day -- while profiting nicely from the situation, of course. United and Hawaiian each added additional flights to and from West Coast cities in the days following the Aloha shutdown. United, a code-share partner of Aloha, worked to secure seats for displaced passengers on its own flights.

U.S. Air allowed Aloha and ATA passengers to fly standby on flights to and from Hawaii for a $100 fee per non-stop segment, and Southwest -- ATA's code-share partner -- jumped into the fray to rebook its customers scheduled to travel with ATA on a new itinerary or offering a full refund.

While it doesn't have the same potential for damaging travel to the islands, the increased activity at Kilauea certainly doesn't help. The volcano, which has been erupting for more than 20 years, began venting elevated levels of sulfur dioxide after it unleashed a volcanic explosion in mid-March.

The noxious emissions became so bad last week that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was closed on Tuesday and 2,000 people were evacuated, including guests of the 42-room Volcano House hotel, according to the Associated Press.

No port excursions were cancelled because of Kilauea's gassy episode and the ensuing park closure, according to an NCL spokesperson. But the increased activity makes the volcano, and conditions in the vicinity, unpredictable for the time being. Cruisers would be wise to keep that in mind and be prepared for potential inconveniences when calling on the Big Island.

The volcano and surrounding park are major tourist attractions on the Big Island, and -- although the park did reopen on Thursday -- any recurring closures would be another gut-shot at a time when Hawaii is already on the ropes.

--by Michael Potter, Assistant Editor