The recent deadly Waikiki shooting was top of mind last week for visitor Hilit Arvats, an attorney from Israel on her first trip to Hawaii.
“I heard someone was shot a few days ago,” said Arvats, as she waited for an Uber in front of the Aqua Ohia Waikiki just steps from where 22-year-old Maleko “Mac” Remlinger was killed Sept. 16 when a man carrying a rifle shot about 10 rounds into a crowd gathered outside of Club Alley Cat. Two others were injured in the incident.
“I’m by myself, so I’m being careful,” Arvats said.
Violent crime is uncommon in Waikiki, which is touted by the state’s visitor industry as one of the world’s safest destinations. But it takes only one incident that goes viral on social media to dampen the state’s cash cow.
Waikiki crimes haven’t yet hurt tourism, which is headed for its sixth record- setting year.
The tourism industry and others hope to keep it that way.
CALLING THE POLICEIn the first seven months of the year, Waikiki police responded to…
>> 273 assaults
>> 53 robberies
>> 20 sex crimes
>> 3 murders
Security cameras already cover Kalakaua Avenue, but the Waikiki Improvement Association and Waikiki Neighborhood Board are pushing to extend them along Kuhio Avenue.
City spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said the city is upgrading its Kalakaua Avenue cameras from analog to digital and would support adding additional cameras along Kuhio Avenue, at a cost of $1,700 per unit, as long as the Waikiki Business Improvement District Association continues to monitor them.
Some Waikiki business owners and residents say they also want more police officers and community patrols. Honolulu City Council member Trevor Ozawa has proposed putting armed park rangers in Waikiki parks.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority has developed a GoHawaii app with safety information. They’ve also joined with the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, the Hawaii Hotel and Visitor Industry Security Association (HHVISA), and the state Attorney General’s Office to print a visitor safety card.
BRUTAL STRIKESIn the same seven-month span, Waikiki has seen a rash of violent crimes, including:
>> A tourist, who was in town for a relative’s wedding, was beaten up so badly during an afternoon stroll through Duke’s Lane that she had to skip the event
>> An international couple was robbed at gunpoint in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel by a suspect driving a stolen car
>> A Shorebird Restaurant manager was assaulted by a homeless man wielding a heavy pot
>> A visitor’s face was beaten by an assailant who snatched her purse on Kapahulu Avenue
>> A visitor was beaten up by a panhandler when he didn’t produce a dollar bill fast enough
>> A visitor out for a morning walk by the Ilikai was assaulted by a man wielding a tiki torch
>> A visitor allegedly killed a woman in a hotel room at the Hilton Waikiki Beach Hotel
>> Yu Wei Gong confessed to the murder of his mother, Liu Yun Gong, whose remains he kept stored in the freezer of a unit in the Aloha Waikiki apartment building
Sources: Star-Advertiser research, Honolulu Police Department
HTA supports the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, which helps visitors in distress, including crime victims.
Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Yu said purse snatching and robberies are relatively infrequent in Waikiki and the use of weapons in the commission of crimes is relatively rare.
Rise in complaints
But some have noticed an uptick.
“We are getting complaints. It’s a little more aggressive now than it’s been,” said Jerry Dolak, HHVISA president.
State Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) said he’s concerned that murders and rapes increased statewide in 2016, even though last year’s crime rate overall had fallen 6 percent to its lowest point in 40 years. Espero said 2016 murders increased 20.9 percent, while rape rose 11.9 percent statewide.
“It looks like more attention needs to be given to Waikiki, which is our economic bread basket. It’s the area where many of our visitors are going and now where they are becoming victims of crime,” Espero said.
Police reports to the Waikiki Neighborhood Board through July show service calls have averaged 3,993 monthly. In the first seven months of the year, Waikiki police responded to 53 robberies, 273 assaults, 20 sex crimes and three murders. Police say Waikiki crime in 2017 has trended pretty close to 2016 levels; however, there weren’t any murders in Waikiki last year.
“Something needs to change. These kinds of crimes are heinous and horrible, especially in Hawaii,” said Jocelyn Farrar, sister of the Sept. 16 shooting victim, speaking by phone from Florida.
Farrar said she supports renewed efforts to bring more crime-fighting tools to Waikiki, especially adding more video cameras and more police foot patrols.
“I hope a lot of things come out of Maleko’s death. I hope the community that he loved so much becomes closer. I hope more crime reduction efforts come out of this tragic crime. They took something away from us that will never be replaced. If we can find the silver lining, it would be that,” Farrar said.
HTA President and CEO George Szigeti said he plans to bring up Waikiki crime during his next quarterly meeting with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Szigeti supports increasing security cameras along Kuhio Avenue and more police support.
“Considering that there are 130,000 visitors in Waikiki on any given day, I think our crime rate is pretty good. Hawaii is perceived as a safe and welcoming destination, but even one crime like (the shooting) is one too many,” Szigeti said.
Jerry Gibson, area vice president for Hilton Hawaii, and Kelly Sanders, area managing director for Marriott Hotels and Resorts Waikiki, have made recent security investments.
“We’ve added a ton of lights and more surveillance,” Sanders said. “We have a TV safety channel for our guests.”
Gibson said Hilton has upgraded its information technology, cameras and surveillance. He wants the city to consider increasing police foot and bike patrols, adding cameras to Kuhio and putting armed park rangers in the parks. He also wants the visitor industry to provide more funding for the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii.
“Safety is ultimately one of the most important things with any destination. We need to protect tourism with everything that we have,” Gibson said.
Jessica Lani Rich, VASH president and CEO, said more safety mechanisms are needed in Waikiki, especially for tourists, who often compromise safety by letting their guard down.
“Nearly every single victim has said, ‘We come to Hawaii. It’s paradise. We never think anything will happen to us,’” Rich said.
Dante Fabiero and K.C. Villoria of San Pedro, Calif., said they fell into that trap during a recent Waikiki vacation to celebrate their engagement. The couple left the key to their rental car under a beach towel. When they emerged from the water, their car was gone along with everything in it, including their identification and credit cards.
“In L.A., you hear about crime every day. You don’t hear about crime in Hawaii, ” Fabiero said. “This was just shocking for us.”
VASH helped the couple arrange transportation, gave them food vouchers and advised them how to prevent identity theft.
“VASH saved the day,” Villoria said. “We’ll be back because of them.”
Avoiding ‘viral’ incident
Since its inception 20 years ago, Rich said, VASH has assisted about 33,700 visitors who fell victim to crime and other problems. During the first eight months of 2017, VASH assisted 1,170.
“We want to be able to say that we’ve done everything that we can to ensure our visitors have a safe and really enjoyable vacation,” Rich said.
It takes only one instance to damage Hawaii’s reputation, especially if it becomes a “cause celebre,” said Peter Tarlow, a world-renowned tourism security expert.
In the mid-1990s, the Japanese government was considering issuing a safety warning against Hawaii following a rash of crimes against visitors — in one case, a tourist’s hair was set on fire at a bus stop. HTA hired Tarlow to develop a tourism security plan, which he said yielded quick results.
“It was really successful because I was yelling at everybody and all of Waikiki was working together. But you can’t say we are done and move on,” Tarlow said. “When you have a crime wave, you don’t know which one will explode. I hope for Hawaii’s sake, none of them go viral.”