Hawai’i tourism officials say U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s Hawai’i vacation last week could not have come at a better time for the state’s No. 1 industry.
“The press coverage around the world has just been massive,” said John Monahan, president of the Hawai’i Visitors and Convention Bureau.
“It came at exactly the right time for Hawai’i with the tourism slump we’re experiencing caused by the economic crisis and the oil situation,” Monahan said. “Clearly, we were hoping his visit here would have the positive aspect it had.
“There’s really no way we could have scripted it better: golf, bodysurfing, a picnic at Ala Moana Beach with family and friends. It was absolutely perfect for us.”
Obama hit many of the major tourist highlights on O’ahu — such as the USS Arizona Memorial, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl and Hanauma Bay — and threw in lots of typical local activities that included body-surfing at Sandy Beach, having shave ice with his two daughters and squeezing in a couple of rounds of golf.
Tourism officials won’t be able to track any specific boost in visitor arrivals or bookings connected to Obama’s visit. As with any single event, such as the release of a Hawai’i-based movie, “it would be difficult to correlate any bump in bookings to his visit,” said Frank Haas, interim assistant dean for strategic planning at the University of Hawai’i’s School of Travel Industry Management. “Isolating visitor arrivals to any one thing is hard.”
The latest tourism arrival numbers for Hawai’i showed a drop of 14.2 percent in June from the previous year. The June decline in arrivals by air was the largest since January 2002, when air arrivals fell 16.2 percent.
For many Mainland residents, Obama’s visit probably brought home for the first time that the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate actually comes from Honolulu, said David Karol, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the book, “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.”
“A lot of Americans before this were unaware of his Hawai’i roots,” Karol said. “He’s a senator from Illinois. … For a significant number of people, this vacation and this discussion about him visiting his family is probably the first time that a significant number of voters will have heard of his Hawai’i ties.”
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Obama doesn’t talk much about Hawai’i “and that’s understandable,” said Advertiser political columnist Jerry Burris, who, along with Honolulu journalist Stu Glauberman, has written a book, “The Dream Begins: How Hawaii Shaped Barack Obama,” to be published this month.
“In terms of his political biography, he is from Chicago and his mother and grandparents are from Kansas,” Burris said. “But in his heart and in his values and in the way he thinks about the world, he is from Hawai’i. Everyone in Hawai’i knows that — when they hear him talk about the importance of family, of cooperation, about understanding the other person’s point of view. That’s the Island way.”
Hawai’i campaign organizers for Obama’s presumptive Republican challenger, U.S. Sen. John McCain, agreed that Hawai’i’s international media attention from Obama’s vacation “is probably good for tourism,” said Jerry Coffee, a retired Navy captain who was imprisoned with McCain in Vietnam’s notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp.
“He’s had the limelight and that’s to be expected,” Coffee said Friday at a McCain campaign cleanup of debris at West Loch area near Pearl Harbor. “From the perspective of the McCain campaign, it’s good for the senator to take a vacation and spend time with his family. Everybody needs that.
“But John McCain would have taken more time to visit historical sites and been more generous with the public.”
Specifically, Coffee said, McCain probably would have visited Army soldiers who returned from Iraq to Schofield Barracks this week.
“What a wonderful opportunity for the potential president of the United States — to say thank you to the soldiers and to their families,” Coffee said.
McCain met his future wife, Cindy, at The Royal Hawaiian hotel while he was returning from a trip to the Far East, Coffee said, and they later returned for their honeymoon.
McCain has no plans to visit Hawai’i before the November election, Coffee said, but Cindy or McCain’s daughter, Meghan, may come before the election.
Some pundits in the national media questioned Obama’s foreign policy credentials during his Hawai’i vacation after he issued a statement on Russia’s incursion into neighboring Georgia from his Kailua rental home.
And there was lots of buzz when ABC News’ Cokie Roberts twice called Hawai’i a “foreign” and “exotic” vacation spot and a poor choice for someone trying to get elected president.
But UC-Berkeley’s Karol said “being from Hawai’i is the least of his problems. Being born in a state that is so culturally distinctive is not a major factor in his perceived foreignness, if you want to use that term.
“Hawai’i is a distinctive environment. But I think being African-American and the factor of his Muslim ancestry and the fact that he lived abroad and in a primarily Muslim country is more of an issue for some voters.”
Those are political distinctions. And Obama’s visit could have turned out entirely different had he been in the Isles campaigning instead of spending time with his wife and children and visiting his grandmother almost every day, said state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert.
“It would not have been the same if it was a political stop,” Wienert said. “This was a vacation, a time to come home and see family and unwind.”
And for the tourism industry, “it’s publicity you really can’t buy,” Wienert said. “That’s the kind of imaging and publicity you can’t quantify dollar-wise.”