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Fewer couples chose Hawaii to tie the knot

Mary Vorsino  Apr 12, 2010

The number of Mainland and foreign couples coming to the Islands to tie the knot continues to plummet from a high in 2005, and industry experts aren't optimistic the figures will improve this year.

Last year, the Health Department issued some 13,936 nonresident marriage licenses (mostly to Mainland couples), a decrease of about 12 percent from 2008 and 30 percent from 2005, new statistics show. The number of couples and immediate family members traveling from the Mainland and overseas for weddings also dropped last year by about 11 percent and is down 35 percent from 2005, the state said.

The statistics come as Hawai'i's No. 1 economic driver, the tourism industry, continues to try to claw its way out of the recession. Weddings account for a sizable — though not formidable — portion of overall tourism figures. Of the 6.5 million people who visited the Islands last year, nearly 2 percent (108,882 people) were to-be-married couples and their immediate family members. Those figures don't include other wedding guests, including friends of the couple.

Industry experts also point out that destination weddings to the Islands bring in much more money per visitor than a vacation alone. An average wedding costs anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000, not including airfare, lodging and other incidentals. And the married couple often sticks around for the honeymoon.

Also, most weddings for Mainland and foreign visitors have 30 to 50 guests.

"Marriage is a major component to the tourism industry," said Alvin Onaka, who heads up the Department of Health's vital statistics office as the state's registrar. He said that several factors may be involved in the steady decline in nonresident marriage licenses, but the economy is by far the biggest.

"There's a general downturn in the economy and it's reflected in people being able to travel," he said.

He added that furloughs at the Health Department wouldn't affect the numbers because nonresident couples have 30 days to get the licenses and the logistics for getting the licenses are usually handled by wedding planners, who know when to apply. Also, he said, the $60 for a license hasn't gone up in years.

All islands saw declines in nonresident marriages last year.

The DOH figures show some 5,596 nonresident marriage licenses were issued in 2009 for couples planning a Maui wedding, a decline of 13 percent from 2008's 6,471 licenses. Kaua'i saw a 20 percent decline, with 2,028 licenses issued, while the Big Island saw a 6 percent drop.

O'ahu saw a 6 percent decline, with 4,990 licenses.

Slump in business
Hawai'i businesses that cater to wedding couples from the Mainland or overseas say they are feeling the slump — and not just with fewer bookings. Couples who do come, they say, are spending less.

"Their budgets are a little tighter," said Michelle Garibay, owner of Blue Sky Productions, which handles destination weddings almost exclusively. "They might not go all out for flowers and decor, all the bells and whistles, in exchange for coming to Hawai'i." Also, she said, fewer guests are flying in.

Susan O'Donnell, owner of Aloha Wedding Planners, which has a mix of nonresident and local weddings, said that judging from inquiries made late last year, it will probably be another slower-than-normal year for the nonresident wedding industry in the Islands. "This year might be somewhat flat," she said.

O'Donnell and others said Hawai'i is competing with other, sometimes cheaper wedding destinations, including the Caribbean. In some cases, couples who would have had a destination wedding decided to stay home so they could use money they would have spent on travel on the ceremony.

Eugene Kam, a wedding photographer and president of the O'ahu Wedding Association, said his nonresident business is actually up, something he attributes to recent advertisements promoting Hawai'i as a value destination. But he said his resident wedding business is down, in part because people are looking to save money and so choose to shoot their own photos. "We're in a DIY market," he said.

Kam added that the destination wedding industry has a "pretty big influence" on the economy.

"Forty to 80 people come here" for a wedding, he said. "That adds up."

About 30 people from several states came for Kimberly Gerber's wedding Thursday at Wai'alae Beach Park. The Florida resident said that because of the tight economy, she decided to go through with her dream of getting married in the Islands but opted to make it less elaborate and more budget-friendly.

She estimates the wedding cost about $11,000, not including travel, lodging and other costs.

Gerber, 29, married Ivo Solis, 31, on the beach in Kāhala, then headed for a reception in Waikīkī.

"I really wanted to get married on the sand," Gerber said.

After the wedding and a stay in Waikīkī, the couple headed to Maui for their honeymoon.

Fewer couples chose Hawaii to tie the knot
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