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Hawaii Big-Surf Season

Giant waves bring visitors (and their money) to Oahu's North Shore

Eloise Aguiar  Jan 28, 2010

An unusual season of giant waves on the North Shore has resulted in a healthy — if not epic — boost for businesses from Sunset Beach to Haleiwa.

With more than two months left in the big-surf season, the North Shore has already experienced at least nine periods of warning-level surf (wave heights of 25 feet or more), triple what is seen in the typical winter and surpassing the 1996 record of eight.

This season's big surf was highlighted by waves of 30 to 50 feet in early December that launched the Eddie Aikau surf meet and showed how crowds drawn by the waves that made the area famous can translate to business for merchants.

The day before The Eddie, with the media hyping National Weather Service forecasts of surf heights not seen in years, thousands of people flocked to the North Shore.

People had packed the beaches by 4 a.m., said Maya Kanaiaupuni, manager for Quiksilver North Shore Boardrider Club, a retail clothing and surfboard store. But conditions were not right for The Eddie, and it was raining, driving people indoors, Kanaiaupuni said.

"That's the day we ran out of T-shirts," she said. "When they held The Eddie the next day, we didn't have any left."

Kanaiaupuni said the big surf has been a factor in the increased sales that have helped the company exceed its goals and increase sales by 9 percent over last season.

The high-surf season has also led to the hiring of five more people, she said. "We don't normally do holiday hires, but this year we did."

Yesterday, the waves were up again, prompting high-surf warnings from the National Weather Service. The warning is in effect through today, with surf on north-facing shores expected to be 20 to 30 feet and that on west-facing shores 15 to 20 feet.

"Since the waves are up, people are coming in to buy surfboards," she said.

Big waves help

A number of other retailers and restaurant operators also report that business is up, and they attribute at least some of the increase to the high surf.

Nancy Wacha of Kai Ku Hale, a retail shop focusing on local arts and crafts, said sales improved 20 percent

to 30 percent in December over the previous year. Wacha said the surf brings in the foot traffic, but the rise in December sales was also because of the holiday season.

"But certainly The Eddie and other two big swells we had definitely contributed," she said.

Antya Miller, executive director for the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, estimated that area restaurants were seeing about a 10 percent increase in business over last year even before the holidays.

Retailers were not faring as well, Miller said, adding that she based her opinion on conversations with business owners rather than statistics.

The surf season and big waves always bring people to the North Shore, but she said she wasn't certain whether the waves did much for business because people are out on the beaches.

"A couple of days it was really high, and the town was dead," Miller said, adding that she thought the area was doing better than other communities because locals were not traveling outside Hawaii and chose to come to the North Shore instead.

Joe Logan, owner of Haleiwa Joe's restaurant in Haleiwa, said business is "way better than last year," and the increased number of high-wave days is a factor.

3-year surf slump

From a surfer's perspective, the last three years of surf was not very good, Logan said, and this year is exceptional.

"We've had a lot of high surf this year, and it seems to have helped business," he said, adding that a pickup in the economy has also helped. "We had 10 years of positive growth, then last year we had a little blip in the action, so this year we're back heading in the right direction."

George Atkins, who owns two art galleries in Haleiwa, said 2009 was turning into a lackluster year for sales until November, which was when the first big waves arrived on the North Shore.

And while the waves may bring foot traffic, art gallery business is tied more to the stock market than to wave heights, said Atkins, who owns Haleiwa Art Gallery and Oceans in Glass.

"I think the consumer sees confidence in recovery, and that's the biggest key certainly beyond waves," he said, adding that Waikiki tourists have finally discovered Haleiwa. "We get five or six busloads of Japanese visitors up here every day. So this has been a real shot in the arm for the whole town."

Giant waves bring visitors (and their money) to Oahu's North Shore
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