The debate over whether Hawaii should allow civil unions has divided the community for years.
The expected signing today by Gov. Neil Abercrombie of Senate Bill 232, making it legal for same-sex and heterosexual couples to enter a civil union, is now creating factions within the state’s visitor industry and business community regarding how best to gain economic benefits from the measure.
There’s no question that the legislation, which goes into effect Jan. 1, opens up business and tourism opportunities for the state and affords members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities the right to mark their unions with a legally binding ceremony. After Iowa’s gay-marriage law went into effect last year, the state saw tourism gains from same-sex couples, their supportive friends and the so-called "creative class" that prizes diverse destinations. Travel and business writers from USA Today to the Chicago Tribune and Travel & Leisure magazine mentioned Iowa — once better known for its corn industry — in their coverage of the same-sex destination boom.
Kevin Rebelo and Frank Miholer, owners of GayHawaiiWedding.com, said they have already seen a similar increase in business related to Hawaii’s legitimization of civil unions.
"Many couples have already called to start making plans," Rebelo said. "They are extremely happy that Hawaii is accepting them."
Since Hawaii has long enjoyed status as a premier wedding and honeymoon destination, some visitor industry members are quick to concede that adding civil unions to the mix will boost visitor demand and create jobs. However, they debate how important the market will become to Hawaii’s 7.1 million, $11.4 billion visitor industry and how much the state should invest in it.
The percentage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) travelers who visited the city in the past 12 months and spent at least one night in a hotel:
Source: Community Marketing Inc.
"Gay travel is an $84 billion industry worldwide. If we could capture just 1 percent of that, it would solve the state’s deficit problem," said Jo-Ann Adams, chairwoman of the GLBT Caucus of the Democratic Party.
Capturing the lucrative market is not necessarily a slam dunk. Despite Hawaii’s reputation for diversity, the state is not ranked even among the nation’s top 10 LGBT destinations.
Also, civil rights legislation for gays and lesbians has not been associated with increased or decreased visitor arrivals in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and New York City, according to the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii (UHERO). Civil unions would have a "very minimal impact on any aspect of Hawaii’s economy and state government operation," UHERO reported in a recent economic impact study.
Still, a study conducted in June by the University of California, Los Angeles, estimated that if civil unions were allowed in Hawaii, between 569 and 1,285 same-sex celebrations would take place in the first four years. UCLA researchers also estimated that same-sex couples would spend $4.2 million to $9.5 million on civil unions and that their out-of-state guests would spend between $17.8 million and $40.3 million on hotels, food, entertainment and retail. Spending would generate between 193 and 333 new jobs, especially in travel and events, the study said.
State lawmakers, tourism marketers and LGBT members met yesterday for an informal discussion with the state House Committee on Tourism to sort out conflicting estimates and decide how to grow this market, which has not received targeted support from state tourism marketing coffers.
"The biggest challenge will be trying to get the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the visitor bureaus to market to the (LGBT) segment like they do to other areas," said Guy Underkoffler, senior vice president of Aqua Hotels & Resorts, a hotel chain that actively markets to the LGBT communities and plans to offer "Rainbow Packages" to enhance the chain’s civil-unions traffic.
Members of the LGBT communities need to be marketed to as separate segments, said Grant Kimura, an organizer of the Paradise Festival, an international gay festival that is expecting to bring 10,000 visitors to Hawaii from May 9 to 15.
"You wouldn’t run a (marketing) campaign to the Japanese market without a Japanese person in it," Kimura said. "A husband and wife walking on Kaanapali does not speak to our community."
Mike McCartney, HTA’s president and CEO, said Hawaii’s marketing efforts are designed to cross demographic segments and highlight activities that are the core strengths of the isles.
"This legislation is intended for Hawaii residents and is not tourism-related," McCartney said of the civil-unions bill. "Hawaii is an island community of diverse cultures and customs and is known as a place that has tolerance, mutual respect and aloha for all people. We welcome all individuals who travel to Hawaii and are drawn here to experience the Hawaiian Islands and our people, place and culture."
The question of how Hawaii markets to the LGBT communities will become more important as the state goes head-on with destinations like Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia that already allow same-sex weddings. Domestic partnerships are offered in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, while civil unions are allowed in Illinois and New Jersey.
"When it’s legal here where we have perfect weather year-round, people will say, ‘Forget going to the Midwest in January,’" Miholer said.
In spite of the lack of state-funded LGBT marketing, Steve Romo and William Murphy of Greeley, Colo., passed up "legal destinations" to hold their Dec. 18 commitment ceremony in Hawaii.
Hawaii was an easy choice for the pair, who will bring more than a dozen family and friends to Kauai for their celebration.
"We wanted to start our future together somewhere beautiful," Romo said. "This was the first place that we thought of. There really wasn’t a second."