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Honolulu squares off in final for top destination

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Drama! Tension! Suspense! Honolulu is locked in battle with Yellowstone National Park to become the best destination in America, according to readers of USA Today and Orbitz, an online travel booking portal.

Voting began four weeks ago, and Friday we’ll find out who will win the bragging rights, don the sparkly tiara and wield the scepter. Naturally the hope is that Honolulu wins, because we know it will be able to fulfill its duties as best destination, relegating Yellowstone to runner-up status for the year.

The methodology of the poll is not clear, but it appears to be "inspired by the bracket-buster college NCAA basketball championships," said Nathan Kam, vice president for travel and tourism at McNeil Wilson Communications, for whom a major client is the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

In one bracket, Honolulu was pitted against major U.S. cities including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, New Orleans, San Antonio, Texas; Orlando, Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul in the poll that began at the end of last month.

On the Net:

» www.usatoday.com/travel/destinations/best-american-destinations.htm

The other bracket, led by Yellowstone, included several other national parks as well as Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Branson, Mo.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Park City, Utah; San Antonio; and Aspen, Colo.

Voting has been hot and heavy, with voters also having the option to enter to win $500 in airline travel via Orbitz. A grand prize of $2,000 in travel is also offered. Reginald Elvenia of Hilo is among the weekly winners.

The poll seems to have been an effective way for the paper and Orbitz to engage their readers and customers, said Darlene Morikawa, HVCB director of public relations and communications.

"It’s a fun tool, and definitely on our end, we want to win," she said. "On a daily basis, we’re always tracking what is being said about Hawaii."

When the reader poll began, she, Kam and others in the industry put the word out via Twitter and Facebook.

Just as Hawaii residents helped keep Jasmine Trias going as far as third-place finalist on American Idol, and Twitter and Facebook users got the Travelocity Roaming Gnome to Hawaii in a promotion several months back, the voting for Honolulu appears to have a full head of steam in the USA Today poll, based on voter comments.

A lot of locals are voting, posting and social networking online, Kam observed. As for the Yellowstone fan base, "The mountain elk and squirrels probably don’t have Twitter. We’ll take any advantage we can get," he laughed.

Kidding aside, the poll has been a cost-free way to promote Hawaii. "HVCB is always looking for an opportunity to keep the brand out there," he said.

Return-on-investment for this free promotion is "the buzz," Morikawa said.

"If you notice what’s out there, people are trying to keep their destination, their product, top-of-mind. We are heading toward the summer months. … and if Hawaii can trend high as a summer destination, I think we all benefit."

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Advertiser. Reach her by e-mail at erika@staradvertiser.com.

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