Obama's Hawaii holiday may boost tourism

AP News
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Posted: Dec 26, 2009 1:00 PM

Tourism officials hope images of a president celebrating a warm Christmas in Hawaii will remind mainlanders that a sunny getaway awaits them if they'd just hop on a plane and leave the frigid temperatures and mounds of snow behind.

While officials don't expect President Barack Obama's visit to attract tourists immediately, they hope it will provide free advertising for a financially struggling state that relies on travelers to keep its economy afloat.

"Hawaii reaps the benefit of the spotlight he provides," said Darlene Morikawa, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which has a Web page dedicated to Obama's past visits. "The last time he was here in Hawaii, national news shows were going live every morning. We had our sunny coverage in the middle of CNN's snow coverage."

The snack shops, landmarks and beaches Obama previously visited continue to get a steady stream of visitors a year after his last visit to the island.

People remember the campaign photos of Obama sharing shave ice _ a monster version of the snow cone _ with his daughters at Island Snow Shave Ice in Kailua, near the family's vacation house.

"It's amazing how many people come in and ask about it," said Kainoa Kaehu, an employee at the shave ice store. "There's going to be a lot more people coming. People are saying, 'Maybe we'll see him this time.'"

A family of six from Spokane, Wash., visited Island Snow this week after they heard it was where Obama had eaten.

"If it's good enough for Obama, it's good enough for us, and I'm a Republican," said family patriarch Steve Salvatori as he sipped a root beer shave ice. "Most people on the mainland wouldn't know where Kailua is until you say, 'It's where Obama vacations.'"

Tourists frequently ask to see Kapiolani Medical Center where he was born, Punahou Circle apartments where he lived for much of his childhood and Punahou School where he graduated high school, said David Uchiyama, vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

But most efforts to capitalize on Obama's fame haven't proven successful, said Rob Kay, who highlights significant places from Obama's childhood on his Web site "Obama's Neighborhood."

"The nascent Obama tourism industry never really took off. There was some interest for a while, but for whatever reason it seemed to dissipate," Kay said. "It's hard to anticipate that his visit will bring any kind of boom, but it can't hurt."

People wishing to follow Obama's activities while he's in the islands can do so on the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau Web site, which has set up a page labeled "Barack Obama's Hawaii." Other businesses have incorporated Obama into their Pearl Harbor and Polynesian tours.

"People want to vacation where the president vacations," said Anissa Gunther, operations manager for Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks, located in the same shopping center as Island Snow Shave Ice. "It's cool to see him come back."

This is Obama's first visit back to Hawaii since he was sworn in as president.

He was previously in the islands for Christmas vacation last year and during a family vacation in August before he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. He also returned to Honolulu last October to visit his ailing grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, who died just two nights before Election Day.

"People are sitting back home and saying, 'Wow, look how beautiful it is. Let's go to Hawaii,'" said hiking guide Mitch Berger. "It's very slow this holiday season. Anything that gets us in the news doesn't hurt."

The number of visitors to Hawaii declined to about 5.4 million through the first 10 months of this year, a 5.5 percent decrease from the previous year, according to statistics from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

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On the Net:

Barack Obama's Hawaii: http://www.gohawaii.com/obama/

Obama's Neighborhood: http://www.obamasneighborhood.com/