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Three-Year Slump

Couples are saying "I Don't" to Hawaii Weddings  Mar 09, 2009

According to state visitor statistics, the number of people traveling to Hawaii to get married last year plunged 16 percent from the previous year, to approximately 60,100 couples. The decline in matrimony-minded tourists outpaced the 11 percent drop in overall visitor arrivals for 2008 that was attributed to rising travel costs and uncertainty about the economy.

Tim Clark of Hawaiian Island Weddings, which provides wedding planning services on four islands, said he handled 111 weddings last year, down from 160 in 2007. He said the local wedding industry took a serious hit in early 2008 from skyrocketing fuel prices that led to higher airfares and contributed to the demise of Aloha and ATA airlines.

"That was the big thing that happened. We had people already scheduled to do weddings, and some canceled and many downsized. Instead of 20 guests they ended up bringing three guests," he said.

As the recession deepens, it appears more couples are rethinking their wedding plans. Visitor statistics from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism indicate January saw a 20 percent drop in visitors who came to Hawaii for nuptials over the same month in 2008.

Clark said January also is a key booking period for wedding planners, since many couples get engaged over the winter holidays. He said his company's web site logged only 400 visits a day during the month, down from the usual 600 to 700 daily hits.

Many of those who decide to wed in Hawaii are scaling back their budgets and guest lists. "Rather than buying a complete wedding package they are buying minister-only ceremonies," he said. Larry Mischle of Larry Mischle Caterer Extraordinaire Inc. said he normally starts the year with 20 new bookings, "but this year I have zero ... It's really not a pretty picture."

Mischle, who is president of the Maui Wedding Association, also blames the drop in visitor nuptials on new state rules requiring permits and placing restrictions on beach weddings and Maui County's crackdown on transient vacation rentals, which often are favored by family groups traveling for weddings. "The message has gone out that Maui is not a friendly island to mainland brides," he said.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources began requiring beach right-of-entry permits for weddings in August. The agency said it issued 3,999 permits statewide, at a minimum cost of US$20 each, through February 26, but without comparison data, it's difficult to say whether the number of beach weddings has dropped since the new requirements took effect.

"More than one wedding coordinator has told us this month (February) that business has been picking up," said DLNR spokeswoman Debbie Ward.

DBEDT does not have data on the economic impact of visitor weddings, which stretches across a wide spectrum of businesses including photographers, entertainers, florists, venue providers, and bakeries. But wedding visitors do spend significantly more than other market segments, according to Eugene Tian, DBEDT research and statistical officer.

"Wedding visitors usually spend more than regular visitors because of their activities. They rent luxury cars, eat at high-end restaurants, and stay in high-end hotels, so they have much higher spending," Tian said.

The Wedding Report Inc., a market research firm, estimated the average cost of a wedding in Kailua, Oahu in the range of US$30,900 to US$51,500, in Waikiki US$22,300 to US$37,200, and in Lahaina, Maui US$19,600 to US$32,600. The figures do not include indirect spending by visiting bridal groups on meals, rental cars, shopping, and other expenses.

The Wedding Report said nuptial spending nationally was down 24 percent last year.

Wedding photographer Dave Miyamoto thinks people tend to be even more cautious with their spending in a presidential election year. He said he worked 60 weddings last year, down from 90 in 2007.

"It's mixed. Businesses that market to the higher-end brides did better. For the ones that are doing smaller weddings, it's a little tougher," said Miyamoto, president of the Oahu Wedding Association. He said he started getting more inquiries immediately after the election and is hoping business will pick up in 2009. "It's looking better but I don't think it's going to be like 2007 and 2006 because spending habits have changed," he said.

Clark said weddings are important to the state's visitor industry because they provide a reason for people to visit Hawaii, and because many involve large groups that spend large. "Tourists come two at a time. With a wedding, they're coming 20 people at a time," he said. Economic concerns aside, Clark said Hawaii remains a top choice for destination weddings. He said he already is seeing an uptick in business and is optimistic the industry will rebound by 2010.

Miyamoto suggested that Hawaii may be able to benefit from recent travel warnings about Mexico, a chief tourism competitor suffering from rampant drug-related violence.

Only about 25 percent of the nonresident couples who hold weddings in Hawaii file for marriage licenses here. For the others, their Hawaii wedding is for ceremonial purposes. Approximately 15,800 licenses were issued to visitors in 2008, the lowest number in seven years, according to Department of Health records.

In the peak year of 2005, nearly 20,000 marriage licenses were issued to nonresidents, but since then, there has been three years of steady decline in numbers. The 12 percent drop in 2008 was the largest decrease in at least a decade.

DOH records show 6,471 marriage licenses were issued last year to nonresident couples planning a Maui wedding, a 16 percent decline. On Oahu, 5,322 nonresident marriage licenses were issued in 2008, down 7 percent; on the Big Island, 1,422 licenses were issued, down 14.5 percent; and on Kauai, 2,553, down 10 percent. The numbers are the lowest since 2001, when the travel industry was impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The economy doesn't seem to be keeping Hawaii residents from tying the knot. Health Department statistics show the number of marriage licenses issued to residents has remained mostly stable in recent years. In 2008, 9,600 marriage licenses were issued to Hawaii couples. May and August were the most popular months for weddings, and December the least popular.

Couples are saying "I Don't" to Hawaii Weddings
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