Trying to make a buck off Obama in Hawaii


Mitch Berger got the idea to start a Barack Obama tour as he was driving a van load of visitors to an Oahu rainforest last September.

“We were headed over to the Koolaus on the Windward side, and on the way I pointed out Rainbow Drive-in on Kapahulu where Obama ate,” said Berger, owner of Guides of Oahu. “The people were fascinated and told me to slow down so they could take a picture. And I’m thinking, ‘This is like taking a picture of Zippy’s.’ ”

“I looked in their eyes and I could see they were so excited,” Berger recalled. “So I decided to do a full-on Obama tour.”

Obama tours are Hawaii’s newest tourism product, with established businesses like Berger’s and first-time entrepreneurs seeking to cash in on the new president’s roots in Honolulu.

So far no one’s making big money on the tours and some of the pre-election buzz about the first Hawaii-born president already is fading.

At five months and counting, Berger runs one of the oldest Obama tours and he attracts about 25 people a week. His two-and-a-half-hour tours cost $40 per person.

“And it’s growing,” said Berger, who has two 15-passenger vans, a 24-seat minibus and a Web page,, that has attracted bookings from Australia, Brazil and Europe. “It hasn’t supplanted my rainforest tours, but business is definitely picking up.”

At least 20 companies using “Obama” in their names have registered a business with the state Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs in the months before and after the election.

Most of them are tour companies, including Obama Ohana Tour, Obama’s Roots Hawaiian Tours, and Obama’s Footsteps Hawaiian Tours. Many never went beyond incorporating.

Books and maps and more

One of the first to get in the game was Ron Jacobs, who authored “Obamaland: Who Is Barack Obama?” (Trade Publishing, Honolulu; $19.95).

A local and Mainland radio personality, Jacobs registered “Obama Land Hawaii” on Aug. 19 for the purpose of “marketing in all media known and in the future of Barack Obama products and services.”

“I just had a feeling I was supposed to do this book,” said Jacobs, who attended Punahou and has known Obama family friend U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie for decades.

“Obamaland,” which is doing brisk business at island bookstores, includes maps marked by small, numbered cones of shave ice. An accompanying “O-zone Key” provides the details (example: “No. 93. Honolulu Zoo. Took family to see new baby tigers”).

Jacobs’s book is more compilation than narrative, cobbled from information available on the Internet, and photos and other images provided by his friends and Obama family friends.

Peter Cannon, president and owner of Hawaiian Resources, had an advantage in making his own Obama map: He’s been in the business of making and selling Hawaiiana — postcards, tide chart calendars, decals, books — since 1972.

Cannon has worked for years with Frank Nielsen ( of Corona, Calif., to produce tour and dive guide maps of Hawaii and other tourist destinations.

Obama’s Oahu, a waterproof map ($6 retail for the folding version, $10 for laminated) puts their popular Oahu map on one side and Obama’s urban Honolulu childhood map on the other. (Example: Paki Playground near Waikiki. “He honed his skills in pick-up games on the outdoor courts here. …”).

“Obama tourism is recognized as another way to bring tourists to the state,” said Cannon. “Little George Washington cut down the cherry tree, little Abe Lincoln studied in a log cabin by candlelight, and Barry Obama went to Punahou.”

Obama’s Oahu is in 100 stores statewide.

“I haven’t had a map take off like this one has,” said Cannon. “I’ve had interest from Norway, Japan.”

Aesthetics are a challenge

While interest was high in the months running up to the election and inaugural, there is some indication that Obama-mania in the Islands has mellowed.

“We received a lot of requests for tours when Obama was here on vacation last year, but we only get one request a week now, if that,” said Frank Hernandez, a concierge at the Halekulani hotel in Waikiki.

Halekulani works with Polynesian Adventure Tours, which was offering tours booked online for $36.76 (down from $39) this week.

“We get a lot more inquiries about ‘Lost’ tours. I think it’s the aesthetics of Hawaii — seeing Punahou really doesn’t compare with the North Shore,” Hernandez said.

Indeed, the aesthetics of the tight circle in Makiki where Obama was born, lived and educated are almost generically urban and mostly unremarkable. The challenges of making a compelling tour that lasts more than 10 minutes are quickly apparent considering that the highlights include the Baskin-Robbins where Obama briefly worked as a teen and the Checker Auto Parts store that used to be a movie theater where Obama may or may not have seen “Star Wars” in 1977.

At the center of any tour is the brown concrete facade of the Punahou Circle Apartments at 1617 S. Beretania St. where Obama lived with his grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, from 1971 to 1979 in a cramped, two-bedroom rental.

Obama went there just before the election to visit his ailing grandmother. She died Nov. 3.

“It’s much quieter now,” said Pete Jones, resident manager of the building, who said the biggest rush came around the time of the visit.

“It was like Grand Central Station then. But I’d say we get people coming maybe about four times a week,” he said. “There’s buses or vans that pass by, too. They don’t usually stop.”

State urged to do more promotion

Cannon and others believe the state is missing an opportunity to promote Obama-related tourism in Hawaii, as Chicago, Obama’s current hometown, has done.

“The [Hawaii Tourism Authority] and the powers that be, they haven’t done a very good job,” Cannon said.

Rob Kay, a local writer and author of, a comprehensive Web site chronicling Obama’s Hawaii stomping grounds, jokes about setting up an Obama Tourism Authority.

More seriously, Kay said he hopes city and state officials will recognize the long-term implications of an Obama presidency.

“Eventually — and evidently the state is already working on this — we should be talking about adding historical markers, because this is obviously an historic kind of deal,” said Kay. “Make it classy, not kitschy, not like these stories with the usual Obama gewgaws. Why not? Chicago has jumped all over this, and we really haven’t.”

Kay adds one other thought: “Hawaii also ought to consider that there is going to be an Obama library at some point. Where is that going to be? The city and state should be thinking about that, too, maybe donate a piece of land in Kakaako. If nothing else, it would be a great publicity stunt to get national press.”