While Hawaii at one time was at the forefront of legalizing same-sex marriage, California has stolen the spotlight, and is experiencing a sudden wedding boom.
But Hawaii still holds a competitive spot as a wedding destination, according to those who cater to the gay and lesbian community, due to its beautiful beaches and romantic settings.
Even though same-sex marriage is not legal here, many couples do seek Hawaii as an ideal venue to hold a commitment ceremony, according to vendors who cater to the market.
There also is a great potential for the state’s economy if legalization were to happen here, say those in the industry.
A study by the Williams Institute at UCLA finds the state potentially could make more than $200 million over the next three years if same-sex weddings were legalized, factoring wedding and travel costs for both local and out-of-state couples.
The state began tracking same-sex visitors in 2003, but to date, its tourism bureau never has marketed specifically to the gay traveler. The state’s campaigns instead target the overall romance market in general.
The sunset painted beautiful streaks of color over a windswept beach on the West side of Maui — as the two declared their love for one another.
As the two exchanged lei and a kiss, it was the romantic picture of paradise so often portrayed in Hawaii’s marketing campaigns telling visitors this is the perfect spot to tie the knot.
Except that in this case, the pair getting married were two men from Southern California.
Could the state of Hawaii, a top wedding destination, benefit from a wedding boom similar to the one in California if same-sex marriages were legalized here?
Wedding coordinators and vendors who cater to the gay and lesbian market, as well as the straight market, say yes — absolutely.
“Definitely,” said Kathy Porter of the Aloha Bridal Gallery, which does mostly straight weddings. “Any state that is going to legalize same-sex weddings is going to get a boom.”
Many wedding vendors in Hawaii can help coordinate a same-sex wedding, though they don’t advertise it, or make a subtle mention of “commitment ceremonies.” Some do their best to avoid it, and several openly advertise that they perform same-sex weddings.
Aloha Maui Weddings has two different Web sites — www.alohamauiweddings.com for straight couples and www.alohamauigayweddings.com for same-sex couples.
Rev. Fay Hovey, president of Aloha Maui Weddings, said Hawaii is well-positioned to benefit from legalizing same-sex weddings here. But even if it isn’t legal here, some couples still seek Hawaii as a destination for a commitment ceremony.
Hovey advertises her business in the Rainbow Wedding Network Magazine. She estimates about 75 percent of her clientele is for straight weddings, and 25 percent for same-sex weddings.
“If it were legal all around the U.S., who wouldn’t rather come to Hawaii?” she said. “A lot of them are going to honeymoon here, anyway.”
Some wedding business, however, recently has been lost to the Golden State.
Kate Sample, manager for In Heaven Commitment Weddings, which also arranges same-sex weddings, said she’s had some cancellations due to the newest development in California.
Overall wedding numbers in the state are waning — with 1.3 percent fewer U.S. West visitors coming here to get married in April this year compared with last year.
“It would definitely have a positive economic impact for the state,” said Sample of the law here.
It turns out that the beach wedding described above was a windfall for the Aloha State by stroke of luck. The two men already had booked their wedding with Aloha Maui before same-sex weddings became legal in California on June 16.
They decided to go ahead with it.
Their wedding party, including guests, added up to 60 from out of state. The ceremony was followed by a reception at a nice restaurant.
“I stand next to people in love all the time,” said Rev. Hovey. “You can feel it at a wedding, and the energy is the same for straight or same-sex couples. The love is the same.”
Janet Renner, owner of Royal Hawaiian Weddings, which also caters to both markets, says airline closures have impacted her business.
Straight couples, she said, have been heading to other destinations that don’t cost as much, such as Mexico. Same-sex couples are heading to California, where marriage is legal.
At the time Hawaii was at the forefront of legalizing same-sex weddings in the late ’90s, she saw a spike. Since California made its historic decision in May, she hasn’t yet had another booking for a same-sex wedding.
The economic impact
California is expecting an economic windfall due to same-sex couples flocking to the state to wed.
A recent university study says the state is poised to earn more than $684.6 million over the next three years due to weddings and tourism generated by the legalization of same-sex marriages.
The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA also estimates the spending will create more than 2,178 new jobs in California, and generate $63.8 million for state and local government revenue.
Executive Director Brad Sears crunched some numbers specific to Hawaii for the Star-Bulletin.
All said, he estimated the total economic boost for Hawaii generated by legalized same-sex weddings would be above $200 million over the next three years.
This is taking the expenditures of local same-sex couples and out-of-state couples into account.
An estimated 2,898 same-sex couples live in Hawaii, and if half were to get married, then an estimated $10.7 million would be generated by their weddings over the next three years.
That’s assuming that the average couple will spend $7,406 on the wedding, significantly less than the average $30,000.
Sears said the institute keeps its estimates on the conservative side.
Out-of-state travelers who potentially might flock to Hawaii for a same-sex wedding — excluding California and Massachusetts — would generate $78.9 million in travel and expenditures over three years.
The state itself stands to gain another $4.8 million in general excise tax, occupancy tax and marriage license fees ($60 per license).
No gay marketing
While the state visitor’s bureau is aware of Hawaii’s vital wedding industry, it has never targeted the gay market.
Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Convention & Visitors Bureau, says to his knowledge, the bureau has never had a marketing campaign specific to the gay traveler.
“While we don’t exclude the gay and lesbian market, we don’t target them specifically,” said Talwar. “It’s not targeted as a separate audience, but it’s part of our overall marketing efforts.”
Instead, the bureau targets the repeat traveler, culture and arts traveler, sports traveler and romance market, which includes people who travel here for honeymoons and weddings.
Rex Johnson, chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, also said he did not know much about the market.
“I would rely on the HVCB folks to tell me that’s a potential market,” said Johnson. “And they will, if in fact it is, and put it in their marketing plan.”
HVCB also refrained from marketing to gays in 1996, when same-sex marriages were on the cusp of becoming legal here.
The state Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism did, however, begin tracking visitors who came here with same-sex partners in 2003 in its visitor satisfaction survey.
The percentages tracked, so far, are pretty small — at 2.5 percent and lower. The largest percentage, 2.5 percent, came from Japan.
Talwar said, however, that HVCB is in close communications with travel bureaus in California, which he called a critical market.
The California Travel and Trade Council actively markets to the gay market through a link on its Web site — www.VisitCalifornia.com/lgbt — where visitors get a list of all the potential same-sex marriage spots and honeymoon packages throughout the state.
Potential locations range from the Chateau de Ville in Calistoga down to the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara.
Panda Travel, one of Hawaii’s largest travel agents, also has taken the initiative of launching HawaiiGayTravel. com to target the demographic.
Kehau Amorin, special projects manager for Panda, said the Web site was launched in response to customer demand.
“A lot of people requested we create packages geared toward the community,” she said.
There were gay-specific cruises on NCL’s Pride of Hawaii, for instance, before it pulled out of the state.
Panda Travel also is putting together travel deals for the upcoming Gay Pride parade in San Francisco, a popular draw.
Hawaii’s own pride parade was held yesterday in Waikiki.
The total buying power of the U.S. gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adult population is projected to be about $712 billion in 2008, according to Witeck-Combs Communications and Packaged Facts.
Same-sex couples are less likely to have kids, and more likely to have both partners in the work force, according to Witeck-Combs Chief Executive Bob Witeck, factors which yield higher per capita household income — especially in the case of gay male couples.
Still not accepted
Many churches and chapels in Hawaii will not perform a same-sex wedding, nor will conservative ministers.
But there are some places that will.
The Unity Church of Hawaii embraces people from all walks of life, and performs same-sex and interfaith marriages.
“We perform holy unions,” said Rev. Sky St. John, who himself is out. “We don’t make any discrimination whatsoever. We believe, essentially, that God created an amazingly diverse world, and so God made an amazing diversity of people, too. If two people fall in love, we want to bless love wherever we can find it.”
Rev. Toni Baran is convinced that even without a law, Hawaii has a lot of potential.
“This is the most romantic place in the world,” she said. “What I think will happen is people will go to California for the paperwork, but come here for the beauty and romance.”
Others, however, believe the state could do more not only to market to gays and lesbians but to embrace their business.
“We’re not as progressive as we’d like to think,” said Renner. “I think we’re behind the eight ball. Here’s an untapped market that has a huge potential.”