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Pictured from left to right: Alain Gerente, Marie Gerente, La Réunion Film Commissioner Edy Payet, Vice-President Jean-Francois Sita, La Réunion President Robert Didier, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Chief of Interpretation Jim Gale, and La Réunion Public Information Officer Corinne Peyron-Beaulieu.
Hawaiʻi National Park, HI - The president of La Réunion, a French volcanic island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, visited Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Thursday afternoon, and marveled over similarities between Hawaiʻi Island and his home. La Réunion President Robert Didier, and his delegation of Vice President Jean-Francois Sita, Film Commissioner Edy Payet and Public Information Officer Corinne Peyron-Beaulieu, explored the park as part of a four-day mission to "build a bridge" between La Réunion and Hawaiʻi Island by promoting sister park status between Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and Réunion National Park. Both national parks are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and both are home to active volcanoes.
Both islands are located in the middle of vast oceans, and are situated over volcanic hot spots. La Réunion's active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise ("Peak of the Furnace"), is listed among earth's most active volcanoes and last erupted in 2010. It stands 8,632 feet above sea level, and like Kīlauea, is a shield volcano.
President Didier and his delegation were also here to gather ideas on how to increase tourism to La Réunion by promoting its national park, which comprises 40 percent of the 970-square-mile island. By comparison, the Island of Hawaiʻi is 4,028 square miles.
"Tourism is key to our economic success. We want to have tourism but also environmental respect. Our ecology, our biodiversity, is unique," President Didier said. Réunion National Park is largely undeveloped, he said. In 2010, approximately 400,000 tourists visited La Réunion. President Didier said they intend to increase the number of visitors to 600,000 by 2015.
Part-time Volcano residents and La Réunion citizens Marie and Alain Gerente were instrumental in planning President Didier's trip to Hawaiʻi, and accompanied the delegation as liaisons and translators.
Other similarities between the two islands include a multicultural population. In Réunion, a mix of people from European, African, Malagasy, Indian and Chinese ancestry comprise the population. Both islands have dense rainforests, a high level of endemism, and are home to white-tailed tropicbirds - an important national symbol in La Réunion. La Réunion also has olivine, and therefore, green sand beaches.
"I stepped off the plane, and looked around, and said, 'oh, I'm at home,'" President Didier said.
The delegation also met with Mayor Billy Kenoi, Big Island Visitors Bureau Executive Director George Applegate and other officials, and toured Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.