Image: Loading up
Eugene Tanner  /  AP
Terry A. of Honolulu talks to a friend on his cell phone after loading up a pickup truck with surfboards on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu on Saturda. Star Beachboys, the owner of the surfboards, removed them from the beach because of a tsunami warning in effect for the Hawaii, after the earthquake of Chile.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 2/28/2010 8:58:31 AM ET 2010-02-28T13:58:31

Hawaii tourism officials hope the publicity churned up by the tsunami that struck the Aloha State Saturday afternoon won’t keep visitors from coming to the island. The state has been struggling to recover from the recession and a dramatic drop-off in tourism spending.

“There is no reason to cancel your visit,” said George Applegate, the executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau.

Part of Hawaii’s tourism infrastructure shut down because of the tsunami, which was triggered by the powerful 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled Chile early Saturday.

Hilo International Airport, on the east side of the Island of Hawaii, closed in advance of the approaching wave. The airport is primarily used by interisland airlines. Other shuttered tourist attractions included the Honolulu Zoo, the Japanese Cultural Center, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Waikiki Aquarium and Wet N Wild Hawaii Waterpark.

The port of Honolulu was also closed. Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Pride of America was scheduled to dock in Honolulu early Saturday, but remained at sea until the Port of Honolulu reopened. “While at sea, this situation does not in any way compromise the safety and security of our passengers and crew,” NCL said in a statement. “Pride of America should be alongside shortly after that and we expect that the next cruise will depart later this evening.” The cruise line expected the ship to arrive at the pier between 7 and 9 p.m.

“So far there is no damage to anything,” Applegate said moments after the first wave hit late Saturday morning. “We’ll monitor the waves for several hours.”

The tsunami may be the least of the tourism industry’s worries. The Aloha State experienced a double-digit decline in visitor spending in January, which followed a difficult 2009 for the state’s tourism industry. Visitors spent $949 million in Hawaii last month, about 13 percent less than in January 2008, according to numbers released by the state. Several well-known resorts, including the IIikai Hotel and the Hawaiiana Hotel have closed, while many other properties faced foreclosure.

Like the soft tourism industry, the effects of the tsunami are likely to be felt for a while.

“Hawaii has a history of dangerous waves,” said Michael Brein, a former Oahu resident and travel psychology expert. “Everyone who lives there has it in the back of their minds that they really have to pay attention.”

Historically, visitors have not been as aware of the potential for a deadly wave, although after the Asian tsunami in 2004, tourists have become more conscious of the hazards, according to Brein. “This time, tourists were excited and a little scared. I think everyone knows how dangerous it could be,” he said.

He and other tourism experts think the publicity from the smaller-than-expected waves won’t deter people from visiting Hawaii.

Rather, it will be a soft economy and higher airfares that will make Americans take a vacation closer to home, they say.

As the predicted wave approached Hawaii, there was a sense that this would not affect the visitors on or off the island. Tim Lussier, a student at Hawai`i Pacific University, who was waiting in Waikiki for the first wave to come ashore late Saturday morning, reported that people were calm as the streets emptied of cars. “Everything is fine,” he said, even as the tsunami bore down on the beach.

Image: Empty beach
Marco Garcia  /  AP
Ala Moana Beach Park sits empty on Saturday in Honolulu.

Some current visitors to the island were certain to be displaced by the wave, says longtime Honolulu resident and tourism expert Jeanne Datz Rice, who described this tsunami as a “non-event.” Hotels in low-lying areas normally evacuate guests to higher rooms. “They’re moved up three floors,” she says, adding, “In a situation like this, everyone makes new friends.”

That’s exactly what happened to Kristina Arntz’ parents, Walter and Victoria Hughes of Martinsburg, W.V. The couple, which had been in Waikiki since Feb. 1, watched the waves roll in from the roof of their condominium, which was located just two blocks away from the beach.

“They seem fine,” said Arntz, who had been in contact with them by e-mail.

At the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, about 600 hotel guests were sent to the hotel’s second-floor ballroom in advance of the tsunami. They were offered sandwiches, pastries and soft drinks and played games until the danger passed, according to the hotel’s general manager, Rodney Ito. “We assured everyone that we were just following civil defense instructions,” he said moments after the waves arrived.

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“We just got the ‘all-clear’ five minutes ago.”

Perhaps the biggest tsunami-related complaint had nothing to do with nature. Visitors complained about a lack of phone coverage as the waves grew closer and phone lines were jammed with calls from concerned relatives on the mainland. The Hughes couldn’t make cell phone calls earlier in the day, and calls to Hawaii were not going through because of busy circuits.

By 1:15 p.m., a sense of calm had returned to Hawaii — if, indeed, it ever left. “There’s a feeling of relief,” said Adam Smith, the chief executive of a Hawaii-based events Web site called

Asked if he had any advice for visitors, he said, “Yes. Everything’s back to normal. Enjoy the day.”

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Video: Hawaii escapes major tsunami damage

  1. Closed captioning of: Hawaii escapes major tsunami damage

    >> okay, lester, thank you. the quake sent a tsunami across the pacific. in the end they were spared the worst. ly -- lee cowan is live in honolulu with the latest.

    >> reporter: the worst fears weren't realized but that was a wave big enough to focus the world's attention on it as it raced across the pacific and forced tens of thousands of people here in hawaii up to higher ground . it was the biggest evacuation since 1994 . even though it ended up being a series of surges rather than a tsunami here, no one was crying wolf . there was every indication it could be every bit as big if not bigger than a wave that killed more than 60 people on the big island in 1960 and that was generated from a quake almost in the very same area as yesterday so people were taking this very seriously. sirens went off around 6:00 a.m . they gave people five hours of warning. they were stocking up on gas, stocking up on food. roads were clogged with traffic. a lot of people pulled over to the side and had tsunami watch parties looking down on the water expecting to see waves between six, eight feet, perhaps even higher. the navy sent about half a dozen of its ships out from pearl harbor . marinas were emptying out as pleasure boaters were heading to deeper water to ride out the wave. by early afternoon it was all over. the boats were coming back in, people were headed back to the beaches and everything was all clear. the experts are going to be looking now, jenna, at why the tsunami didn't end up being as big as what a lot of people thought but they insisted all of those warnings were necessary and yesterday's response proves that the warning system does in fact work and all those people would have certainly been saved had in fact the worst fears been realized here in hawaii. jenna, back to you.

    >> all right, lee cowan, good to know. thank you so much.

    >>> time for a check of


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