Tim Haverly, who works in Waikiki security, has stood on the corner of Kuhio and Seaside avenues surveying crime in the state’s top tourist district for more than 40 years.
From his perch, Haverly watches the ugly part of Waikiki that the state hopes most residents and tourists will never see. Although cleanup efforts have much improved crime along the 2-mile by half-a-mile wide stretch, the cover of night still brings the prostitutes who sell their bodies and the pimps who force them to walk the track, Haverly said. Drunks stagger out of late-night clubs and druggies make deals behind hotel stairwells. There are bar brawls and street fights. Homeless people, panhandlers and thieves roam the tourist mecca.
"On weekday nights in Waikiki, you can hear a cop snore for two blocks. There is no traffic, no crowds, and taxis in Waikiki are down to a minimum," Haverly said. "But on weekends, paydays and full moon nights — watch out."
Haverly said there were many fights near the Waikiki Trade Center last weekend, and at one point more than 17 police cars responded to complaints near Kuhio and Seaside Avenue. He called in one of the complaints himself after discovering a group of seven people "kicking and stomping" a man in the parking lot of one of the properties that he patrols. Stories like the ones Haverly has described have made it onto YouTube and online travel sites like TripAdvisor, where on a recent check there were more than 298 comments devoted to the subject of Waikiki crime. The state also earned a recent mention for turning up in the middle of a list of Avvo.com‘s most dangerous spring break destinations.
"I’ve always been amazed at how active Kuhio Avenue is at night," said Mark Britton, Avvo’s founder and chief executive officer, who has been coming to the isles biannually since the 1970s. "The number of prostitutes and drug transactions are surprising."
Still, for the most part, the image of Waikiki as a haven for homelessness, prostitution and other crimes belies the reality that it is no more dangerous than other Oahu neighborhoods and safer than many alternative beach destinations.
Visitors from the U.S. West, U.S. East and Japan have said that their perception that Hawaii is safe is one of its strongest assets against destinations such as Mexico, Alaska, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe, Florida, Las Vegas, China, Korea, Maldives and Thailand.
"There was a time when we had 200 car thefts a month in Waikiki; now it’s more like 20," said Jerry Dolak, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts’ director of security and safety and vice president of the Hawaii Hotel & Visitor Industry Security Association, a crime-fighting organization whose members include hotel, condo and shopping center security chiefs and visitor industry managers.
Last year, Waikiki wasn’t the worst crime district on Oahu by any measure, according to Honolulu Police Department statistics. Waikiki had the second highest number of rapes, the third highest murder count and the fourth highest burglary count among Oahu’s eight crime districts in 2009, the most recent available year for data.
Members of Hawaii’s visitor industry say that the crime statistics are pretty good considering that on any given day the district is filled with about 90,000 travelers, representing more than 50 percent of the average daily visitor census for the isles. Thousands of workers who support the state’s key visitor industry also boost traffic in Hawaii’s main economic center. About 27,000 residents call the district home, and a growing number of homeless people and transients live there as well.
"The Honolulu Police Department and the hotel security groups have done an incredible job, and we’ve gone from extremes of frequent crime affecting visitors and residents to what is occurring now and that’s a huge improvement," Haverly said.
Much of the remaining Waikiki crime relates back to a proliferation of late-night establishments near the Waikiki Trade Center in the heart of the district, he said. Police actively patrol these Waikiki crime hot spots to keep criminal activity in check, and lawmakers are considering legislation that would limit the number of nearby late-night establishments, Haverly said.
Before Outrigger put $460 million into Waikiki Beach Walk, Dolak said that people were afraid to walk Lewers Street at night. Higher-end bars, restaurants and retail attract a different crowd, he said. Better lighting, more surveillance cameras and a very visible security force also have improved the vibe, said Lee Burgwinkel, the operations manager for the Pacific region of G4S Secure Solutions USA, which provides contract security for about 143 Hawaii hotels.
"Waikiki crime has really toned down," Burgwinkel said. "Direct communication between the hotels has improved, too."
Jeremy Hassinger, a prison security guard visiting from Appleton, Wis., said earlier this month that Waikiki was the kind of destination where visitors could feel comfortable walking around with "their wallets in their pockets."
"Everything seemed very open and well lit," Hassinger said.
Hassinger’s perception has been hard won, Dolak said.
State and city crime fighters, as well as members of Hawaii’s visitor industry, joined forces to ensure the destination’s safety, he said. In 2007, the Hawaii Tourism Authority hired Peter Tarlow, an international expert on tourism risk management, to prioritize safety goals.
Tarlow, who advised the Caribbean island of Aruba on how to restore tourism after the disappearance of American teenager Natalee Holloway, worked with Hawaii’s visitor industry in the mid-1990s when crime in Waikiki was at its zenith and a high rate of crystal meth use was creating widespread problems.
"Crime had gotten to the point where the Japanese consul general was going to go on TV and recommend that Waikiki was unsafe for Japanese travelers," Tarlow said. "In those days, there was a lot of purse snatching, pickpocketing, car break-ins, prostitution, and street performers that would harass and rip-off tourists."
The Waikiki police sub-station opened across from the Hyatt and a citizen’s watch group, the Aloha Patrol, was created, he said. The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, which is supported by the HTA, was formed in 1997 to aid visitors.
"They did a wonderful job and as things got better, it calmed down," Tarlow said.
Continued effort needs to be made to curtail solicitation, beatings, harassment and other criminal activity in Waikiki and to protect visitors from spill-over crime in other districts, he said.
HTA has set aside $175,000 to put security cameras where Kuhio Avenue connects with Kanekapolei, Nahua and Nohonani streets and Seaside Avenue, said Mike McCartney, president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
"Safety is one of the key attributes that helps differentiate Hawaii from other destinations," McCartney said. "We do have a safe community and visitors recognize that it’s not only our law enforcement, but the nature of our people and how we treat each other with respect and tolerance."
Even with cleanup and improvements, Waikiki has its share of high-profile crimes against tourists including the 2009 murder of 25-year-old Bryanna Antone of New Mexico, whose nude body was found on the beach. In 2007, Ingeborg Jandura was killed when her husband, Ted, stabbed her more than 100 times in their timeshare. Greg Pitts, the acting White House Travel Office director for President George W. Bush, was robbed and beaten in 2006 near the International Marketplace after leaving a bar. Multiple visitors who say that they were victims of Waikiki crime also have detailed experiences on TripAdvisor and other online travel forums.
Thomas Kopko, a chaplain from Roseville, Calif., sought help from VASH after a fellow visitor removed his hotel key from the ledge of a Waikiki hot tub and used it to enter his room and steal his wallet.
"We didn’t realize that the crime had been committed until the next morning," said Kopko’s wife, Doris, who accompanied her husband last November on their sixth trip to Hawaii to celebrate their 50th anniversary. "It was devastating."
Victims and their families suffer greatly along with the destination, said Jessica Lani Rich, VASH’s executive director.
"We get involved as soon as we can to assure the visitors that the state of Hawaii is here to help," Rich said. "They often feel lost and isolated. We can’t take away what happened, but we try to make them feel cared for and to share our aloha. No other destination does that to the extent that we do."
Actual crime numbers in the state’s top tourist district compare favorably with those of its primary U.S. competitors such as Orlando, Fla., Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Anaheim, Calif. and San Diego, Calif., said Joseph Toy, president and chief executive of hotel consultancy Hospitality Advisors LLC.
"These competitive destinations are relatively safe, too," Toy said. "On the flip side, you have destinations like Mexico where there is tremendous crime and some gangs have attacked tourists."
Kopko said nothing bad ever happened to her in Mexico, but she would never go back.
"I wouldn’t go there again. It’s too dangerous," she said.
However, Kopko said that she would return to Waikiki. It felt as safe as Sacramento, Calif., the city nearest her home, she said.
"Everything in my husband’s wallet — license, money, credit cards — was gone, but everyone really came through," Kopko said. "The crime didn’t change how I feel about the destination. If anyone asked, I’d say definitely go."