The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference will put Hawaii on an international stage in November, and officials here want to make sure Waikiki’s seedier side doesn’t hog the spotlight.
Local politicians, hoteliers and law enforcement officials are planning heavier security to combat an expected increase in prostitution as pimps bring more sex-trade workers to the islands to meet higher demand.
"When big events come to town, the number of prostitutes increases on the street, and APEC is a big event," said Ben Rafter, president and chief executive of Aqua Hotels & Resorts, operator of Aqua Waikiki Wave.
APEC Leaders’ Week — Nov. 7 to 13 — will bring about 20,000 attendees, including President Barack Obama, other heads of state from APEC’s 21 countries, ministers, political staff, business leaders and media.
The Pro Bowl, military exercises and the Asian Development Bank meeting in 2001 all drew more prostitutes to Waikiki, said Bob Finley, who has been a Waikiki resident since the 1970s and is chairman of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board.
"I’ll hate to see it, but certainly it’s going to surge for APEC," Finley said.
Unless law enforcement and lawmakers prepare for APEC, it could become a huge sex trafficking problem for Hawaii, said Kathryn Xian, director of advocacy for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.
"It will bring hundreds of Asian businessmen with diplomatic immunity that may not view prostitution as a crime," Xian said.
During APEC meetings in Thailand and in Australia, sex trafficking made the news. The Bangkok Post reported that Thai police rounded up more than 1,000 prostitutes in an effort to spruce up for the APEC summit that it hosted in 2003. However, police told the newspaper that the prostitutes returned soon after being fined.
Secret service agents and international convoys helped boost business at Australia’s legal brothels for the APEC Summit held in 2007, according to the Sydney Sun-Herald. The newspaper reported that some adult businesses were up 300 percent for the event and that interstate prostitutes were brought in to offer APEC-themed specials such as the "Condi Combo," the "UN Duo" and the "Presidential Platter."
Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, who is an ex-officio member of the APEC Hawaii Host Committee, said there will be increased law enforcement in Waikiki during the international meeting and that several city departments have met and will continue to meet in preparation for the event.
"Learning from previous events of this nature such as Asian Development Bank and RIMPAC exercises, law enforcement resources are typically increased," Carlisle said. "During APEC, in addition to the (Honolulu Police Department), there will be federal and state law enforcement authorities already present in Waikiki for the conference."
Hopefully, the extra security presence will deter sex workers during APEC, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii and French Polynesia.
"My personal view is that there’ll be so much security in Waikiki that it will be the last place that anyone doing anything would want to be," Vieira said. "But we need to get prostitutes off the streets of Waikiki, period."
Prostitution hurts tourism and increases security costs for businesses, he said.
The number of prostitutes might increase during major events, but sex workers remain an unresolved concern year-round for Waikiki, said Kaleo Keolanui, president of the Hawaii Hotel & Visitor Industry Security Association, whose members include hotel, condo and shopping center security.
"We have travelers from all over the world mixed with our military population, which makes for an ideal prey for the prostitutes," Keolanui said. "Why? Because they have money, and they’re here for a very short period of time. It’s a huge concern."
Waikiki sex workers are typically brought in from cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Las Vegas, said Bulla Eastman, director of security and risk management for Aqua Hotels & Resorts. Pimps fly sex workers to Hawaii and keep them here for up to four months before moving them to another state, he said. When pimps pick up local runaways or local girls with problems at shopping centers, they are often sent to other states rather than put to work here, Eastman said.
The problem doesn’t stop with the sex trade.
"Generally, with organized criminal activity there tends to be money laundering, narcotics and other criminal offenses co-occurring," said Major Susan Dowsett, commander of HPD’s Narcotics/Vice Division.
Hoteliers have few tools to keep prostitutes out of their hotels, Keolanui said.
"Management is usually notified after the fact, when a guest reports he has been robbed or has property missing from his room," he said. "We’re relying on the guest to be smart and not engage in this sort of activity. If they choose to engage in this type of behavior, then there’s really not a whole lot that we can do."
HPD arrested 271 people, mostly in Waikiki and downtown, for prostitution offenses last year.
About 20 prostitutes roamed the state’s primary retail and tourism corridor last week on a rainy Thursday night at 9 p.m. Wearing mostly short skirts and tall heels, the women aggressively solicited tourists and locals as they walked the damp streets and loitered along the fences and door frames of local hotels, shopping plazas and businesses.
One sex worker blatantly sat on the curb of the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel, about half a block from the Honolulu Police Department substation, fastening the 6-inch pumps that loosened during her continuous stroll.
A buxom woman chatted up passing men underneath a warning sign outside of the Waikiki Town Center that read, "Private Property. No loitering. No soliciting." While a few men stopped to hear her pitch, a couple of moms rapidly pulled their kids across the street.
Just a block or so away, a statuesque woman worked the Waikiki Trade Center’s nightclub crowd as blue lights from a nearby police car danced in the distance.
"If I were the APEC, I’d be worried about prostitution," said Aqua Hotels CEO Rafter. "I can’t even walk five blocks without a dozen prostitutes trying to stop and talk to me. If that’s happening to me, it’s happening to every single tourist out there."
Tom Kabrovich, a visitor from Dearborn, Mich., who has vacationed in Hawaii 14 times since 2001, said he was appalled by the visible sex trafficking in Waikiki during his most recent stay.
"There must have been a hundred pavement princesses out there, and if you look closely enough you can see their pimps hustling in the background," Kabrovich said. "It creates an uneasy feeling."
Prostitution gives Oahu a black eye and ruins vacations, Kabrovich said.
"It shouldn’t be tolerated," he said. "Visitors and residents deserve more."
Victims of sex trafficking need better protection, too, said a California woman who was defrauded into becoming a Waikiki sex worker last year. The woman, who is in her early 20s, said a man she regarded as her boyfriend brought her to Hawaii under the guise of a vacation and then forced her to work the streets.
"I had to make $500 or more every time I stepped outside or he would whup my ass," she said.
Once, when she returned to the hotel without his quota, the woman said that he held her over a 20th-story railing and threatened to drop her.
"I thought that I was going to die," she said.
The woman, who escaped with the help of a cabdriver, is now part of PASS’s lobbying efforts to get House Bill 240 signed into law. The bill passed the state House and Senate and is awaiting a decision by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
HB 240 would give law enforcement better tools to fight prostitution, said Carlisle, who was formerly the city prosecutor.
"The problem with investigating and prosecuting pimps and traffickers is getting victims and witnesses to testify against the pimps and traffickers," he said. "Without their assistance or cooperation, we usually don’t have enough evidence to prosecute the cases. And as you would expect, the victims are often intimidated by the traffickers and threatened with retaliation."
Tourists question why prostitutes are allowed to roam Waikiki freely; however, police cannot solve the prostitution problem without support from lawmakers, Keolanui said.
HB 240 assigns greater penalties to those who promote prostitution and provides witness protection for sex workers, Xian said.
"We want APEC money spent on legitimate businesses," she said. "Hawaii has a huge opportunity with HB 240 to keep conference attendees’ eyes on the ball."