Hilo businesses ready to welcome back neighbor-island residents


This time last year, business was booming in Hilo with thousands of visitors and residents taking a stand on Mauna Kea.

In 2018, even more people traveled to Hawaii island to see Kilauea’s eruption.

Business was looking good to start 2020, but once the shut-down began, businesses were hit hard statewide.

In early March, Hawaii’s biggest event of the year, Merrie Monarch, was canceled, and nearby businesses were forced to close their doors shortly after.

Now, with the inter-island quarantine being lifted, many businesses say they are excited to get back to some type of normal.

This time last year, the Grand Naniloa Resort, a Doubletree by Hilton was almost fully booked.

“Last year, we were running mid-80s to about 90 percent occupancy for the entire month of June, so March, April, and May were all really good months for us, so with everything happening it’s certainly impacting occupancy now,” said Ed Gunderson, Grand Naniloa Resort general manager.

Hilo businesses see thousands of visitors and residents during Merrie Monarch, and many were devastated to hear it was canceled.

“Merrie Monarch is the ‘Super Bowl’ of hula,” said Gunderson. “The cancellation made sense with everything going on and we had some fun events scheduled too.”

“It was very sad because that’s just one of the keystone Hallmarks of this island and this state,” said Gunderson.

The Grand Naniloa Resort stayed open during the shutdown and provided accommodations to National Guard members.

“That was very, very helpful, they stayed in a couple places throughout the island, and we’ve been their hub,” he said. “We were fortunate, we certainly were not at 85-percent, but it’s better than not having them at all and they’ve been a great group to have here, so respectful and happy faces.”

He hopes residents on other islands will visit Hawaii island once the inter-island quarantine is lifted.

“We’re obviously cautiously optimistic,” Gunderson said. “We certainly think there’s going to be some amped-up demand for inter-island travel and we have some packages coming out, we have a kamaaina package for $139 plus a $50 dining credit for Hula Hula’s which is our dining restaurant on site and opening again on June 7.”

He said the pool is open and beach chairs are available but spread out six-feet.

The resort has also enhanced its cleaning protocols.

“We’ll ask people to wear their face mask in public space and in elevators,” he said.

“You’re going to see the same Aloha spirit,” he said.

Small business owners are continuing to re-open across Hilo.

Hawaiian Force in Hilo re-opened its doors for the first time on Thursday.

“Downtown Hilo, maybe about 60-percent of everything is open,” said Craig Neff, owner of Hawaiian Force.

“Especially this week, I’m starting to see a lot more cars and people walking by and traffic. It’s nothing as close to what it was before, but we got to start some place,” he said.  

Hawaiian Force was busy during the Mauna Kea demonstrations and although many businesses are struggling, Neff said he’s learned a new lesson.

“Businesses have been suffering, but a lot of things have been good and happy like the environment, the aina has been really happy,” he said. “I think we all have to hit that reset button on how we do business.”

“We’re not all about the money, we want to make money, but we are here to put a certain message out that supports our community, our environment, and supports our aina, and if you can make a little money on the side to feed our families then that’s important thing for us,” Neff said.  

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