For years, the Rev. Fay Hovey has held ceremonies on the sand for gay partners who want to pledge their love in Hawaii. The couples take photos and memories with them, but the ceremonies lack a legal and binding recognition of their relationship.
That will change when civil unions soon become law in Hawaii.
"They have that fantasy just like any other couple, to come and have a wedding and a honeymoon," said Hovey, of Aloha Maui Gay Weddings, who hopes for an increase in commitment ceremonies. "When they come to Hawaii, everybody can relax in their spirits and feel included."
Hawaii lawmakers gave final approval to civil unions last week and sent the legislation to Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who said he will sign it into law Wednesday.
Civil unions would be allowed beginning Jan. 1, 2012, making Hawaii the sixth state in the nation to grant virtually the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself.
The culturally diverse islands are already a welcoming place for gay tourists, including some who seek informal partnership ceremonies.
With civil unions, those ceremonies would come with a certificate valid in other states with civil unions or same-sex marriage, depending on their local laws. Five states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.
Hawaii, known as one of the nation’s premier locations for destination weddings and honeymoons, also will allow gay couples to get civil unions even if they don’t come from states with compatible laws.
"It will certainly drive more tourism and bring more people to us," said Michael Waddell, general manager for the Maui Sunseeker, a resort catering to gay clientele. "They come here because they can be comfortable and they can be themselves."
The Maui Sunseeker is expanding from 17 to 30 rooms by the end of the year, which will help it accommodate new visitors, he said.
Honeymoons and marriages made up nearly one-tenth of Hawaii vacations last year, with more than 600,000 tourists traveling for that reason out of a total of about 7 million annual visitors, according to preliminary state government statistics.
"We don’t discriminate. We’re known for having tolerance and mutual respect for all," said Mike McCartney, president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "Our natural beauty, people and spirit create an environment for romance."
But the number of couples seeking civil unions may be somewhat modest, according to one study. Between 569 and 1,285 same-sex couples will enter civil unions in the first four years that registration is available, the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA estimated last June.
"A traditional wedding would tend to be marriage. The untraditional wedding would tend to be on the beach in paradise. That’s one of the strong advantages of Hawaii," said the Rev. Mike John Hough of Kauai Island Weddings, who expects the number of ceremonies he performs to increase between 10 percent and 20 percent.