The Brancatelli File



August 1, 1985 -- On a typically balmy Hawaiian morning not long ago, Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi came to Waikiki to speak to a group of mainland journalists. The writers, flown to the Islands at great expense by United and a local hotel trade association, were being feted in Honolulu as part of the hotel group’s first attempt to promote Waikiki as a travel destination.

Fasi promptly launched a barrage of potshots at the half-mile wide tourist strip that dominates the Honolulu economy. Waikiki just wasn’t beautiful enough, Fasi told the travel writers. The traffic situation was deplorable, he said. Waikiki’s beaches weren’t clean enough. The streets were filled with homeless drifters and prostitutes, he said. Waikiki’s 450 acres were awash in handbillers and panhandling religious fanatics, he complained. Recently reelected, Fasi told the journalists he needed four years to clean up and revitalize what the hotel group was marketing as “Life’s Greatest Beach.”

As Fasi droned on, knocking Waikiki as all Honolulu residents are wont to do, the public relations woman for one of the city’s most luxurious new hotels shook her head in despair. “Can you believe he said he needs four years to save Waikiki?” she asked one of the visiting writers. “Can you believe he said that while we’re trying to sell Waikiki to people now?”

“How come,” wondered the writer, a Californian, “everybody loves Honolulu except the people who live here?”

“I don’t really know,” answered an official of the hotel operators group. “We just like to complain, I guess.”

And so it goes in Honolulu, America’s eleventh-largest city, population 780,000, home of Waikiki, Magnum P.I., and an inferiority complex that defies all logic and the adulation of several million tourists each year.

“You want great climate, come to Honolulu. You want a rational mix of urban, suburban and rural, come to Honolulu. You want American paradise, come to Honolulu. You want a town with a massive dose of ‘island fever’ and rampant insecurity, you also come to Honolulu,” says Henry Lee, a computer programmer who moved to Honolulu from Boston ten years ago.

“This city is at war with itself all the time,” adds Susan Brownman, a legal secretary who emigrated to Honolulu from San Francisco. “People who live here worry when the economy is bad. Then they worry when the economy gets better. They worry when the tourists don’t come. Then, when the tourists do come, they worry that Honolulu has too many tourists. Me, I love it here. I would not live anywhere else.

Which isn’t to say all of Honolulu’s problems are figments of overactive local imaginations. Honolulu’s got its share of real ills: a tourist-based economy facing stiff competition from newer and more luxurious Hawaiian travel destinations; a housing crunch; poor convention facilities that handicap the city’s ability to attract upscale business travelers; a pretty, compact, but essentially lifeless downtown business district, and a raft of other economic maladies large and small.

Separating Honolulu’s real ills from its purely psychosomatic woes is no easy task, however. Sometimes, says Bank of Hawaii chief economist David Ramsour, perception becomes reality in a city that’s separated from the rest of the country by thousands of miles of ocean.

“You can’t understand Honolulu unless you understand the island mentality,” Ramsour says. We’re terribly isolated and insulated here. Things look different to us because of that. We’re forced to deal with things differently. When we question something about Honolulu, we can’t say ‘Let’s jump into the car and see what the town down the road is doing.’ We’re 2,300 miles away from San Francisco and halfway around the world from New York. We’ve got nothing with which to compare ourselves. And that leads to some perceptions of ourselves that undoubtedly seem strange to outsiders.”

Nowhere does Honolulu’s perspective about itself seem more bizarre to outsiders than when it concerns Waikiki, the brash, relentlessly urban seaside playground that dominates the everyday life of the city.

Tourists come to Waikiki in droves. According to the Hawaii Visitors Bureau (HVB), a quasi-government agency, 80 percent of the five million tourists who come to the state annually still spend at least some of their vacation time in Waikiki. The resorts on the neighboring Hawaiian Islands of Maui, Hawaii and Kauai are becoming increasingly powerful travel destinations in their own right, but Waikiki remains the state’s tourist mecca.

Waikiki is an economic powerhouse. The 450-acre community accounts for more than 15 percent of the state’s tax revenues. Tourists, Ramsour estimates, spend about $2 billion annually in the Waikiki area’s 650 retail stores and 128 hotels and condominiums.

Yet Waikiki is Honolulu’s favorite scapegoat. The locals’ litany of complaints about Waikiki is endless. But worst of all, Honoluluans sneer, Waikiki doesn’t draw the big-ticket, high-rolling vacationers anymore. It’s filled with budget travelers and families and retired people who don’t fit into Honolulu’s perception of itself as a lush, tropical paradise. “With all the drugs and prostitution,” complains the director of a Honolulu hotel off the Waikiki strip, “Waikiki is more like Tijuana than Polynesia.”

“You only hear that kind of garbage from locals. The tourists just eat Waikiki up, they love it,” says Gordon U. Kai, director of marketing of the Hawaiian Regent, the state’s third-largest hotel. “But locals, even those who should know better because they’re in the travel industry, they are just vicious. They can't wait to take a shot at Waikiki’s reputation.”

“The locals who think Waikiki is beneath them are very dumb people,” adds Gerald Wohlsborn, general manager of the Westin Ilikai. “Most of them don’t realize they wouldn’t be able to afford their own lifestyles if it weren’t for the dollars Waikiki pumps into the economy. But I also blame the tourism industry itself. We haven’t actively promoted the value of Waikiki to the community.”

Waikiki’s problems aren’t solely a matter of local perception, of course. There are some very real concerns.

Much of Waikiki’s hotel stocks is more than twenty years old and, in Ramsour’s opinion, “is in desperate need of refurbishing.” There are some legitimate issues of safety and cleanliness. Waikiki’s legendary “Aloha spirit” isn’t as much in evidence as it once was. And Waikiki is losing an alarming proportion of its upscale travelers to more glamorous resorts such as Kaanapali Beach on Maui and the super-luxury Mauna Kea Beach and Mauna Lani Bay on the Big Island.

“I don’t think anyone is totally satisfied with what we’ve got on Waikiki,” admits Kai. “We’ve got the cleanest, safest and most interesting destination in the world. But we can’t take it for granted and we can’t rest on past laurels. We’ve also got to broaden Waikiki’s focus. There are other things to promote on Oahu. We’ve got the North Shore beaches and the Polynesian Culture Center and even downtown.”

Waikiki’s travel industry has now begun to address those issues. After decades of go-it-alone promotions, many of the hotels have joined the recently formed Waikiki Beach Operators Association (WBOA). The trade organization is attempting to promote Waikiki rather than any particular hotel—hence the “Life’s Greatest Beach” slogan—and is also working to clean up the seedier portions of the area.

“The WBOA is a start, but we’re going to have to do much more in the future. Be more aggressive,” says Richard Kelly, the president of the Outrigger Hotel chain. “Waikiki’s hotel operators have finally realized that they’re in competition with the whole world for the tourist dollar. For a long time, we just assumed people wanted to come to visit Waikiki. We won’t make that mistake anymore.”

Luring upscale business travelers to Waikiki is one of the major interests of the hotel operators. Led by Kelly, whose chain controls thousands of rooms in the area, hotel operators are pushing for the construction of a convention center in or around Waikiki.

No one in Honolulu seriously disputes the logic of building a convention hall. Convention and meetings are a $40 billion industry in the United States and Honolulu could become a major convention city if it built a quality exhibition hall. Waikiki also has enough hotel space to accommodate an influx of conventioneers and it also has the temperate year-round climate which appeals to meeting planners.

But as with so many other things in Honolulu, the city is paralyzed by a collection of divergent perceptions about the realities of building a convention industry in Waikiki. No one can agree upon an acceptable site, there are deep-seated disagreements about a convention hall’s potential impact on Waikiki’s already clogged streets, and there are even debates on how to pay for the construction of a convention center. Insisting a convention center would be primarily a serviced to tourists, Mayor Fasi wants to levy a hotel tax to raise construction funds. Kelly and his allies vehemently oppose tourist-oriented taxes. They insist a convention center would be a major boost for the local economy and therefore should be funded by bonds or some other non-tax financing.

“There’s no question in anyone’s mind that we need to build a convention center,” says Ramsour. “But it’s going to take several acts of God to get the site settled and then several more acts of God to get the financing and logistics worked out.”

Honolulu’s angst over Waikiki and its proper place in the city’s hierarchy even affects the nearby downtown business district. Because all of the city’s action and night life is centered in Waikiki, downtown Honolulu is a quiet, deserted place after business hours. There’s no hotel, no nightclubs, no late-night restaurants, no shopping mall, no theaters, no residential activity and no street life.

“There isn’t even a really good bar open downtown after five o’clock,” sighs Jackie Hirsch, district manager of Grubb & Ellis Company’s Honolulu real-estate operations. “Waikiki is in such close proximity and offers so much that there’s nothing happening downtown. We need something to keep this place humming after business hours. Downtown Honolulu could use a real dose of urban revitalization.”

But most of downtown Honolulu already has been redeveloped. With the exception of several spectacular old office buildings that have been saved and refurbished, downtown Honolulu is a gleaming, new city with innovative architectural designs and wide, inviting plazas.

“It’s a funny thing,” says Hirsch, who emigrated to Honolulu from the East Coast. “I always hear locals complaining about how they hate to go into Waikiki and mingle with the tourists. Well, tourists don’t come downtown. It would be the perfect place for locals to develop their own night life and social life if they had a mind to do so. It’s pretty, it’s clean and there’s a fifteen percent vacancy rate. But they haven’t done anything. No matter how much they complain about it, I think the locals secretly enjoy Waikiki as much as the tourists.”

Which is just the kind of thinking that warms the cockles of Gordon N. Hentschel’s heart.

“I’ve been trying to tell locals that they’ve got to look at Waikiki differently than they have in the past,” says Hentschel, the Hyatt regional vice president who doubles as president of the WBOA. “Waikiki isn’t the sleepy little beach community it used to be. But that’s not what it’s meant to be. It’s the heart of Honolulu, which just happens to be a very exciting Pacific Basin city. Everybody knows that except the people who live here.”

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1983-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.