Down the aisle in the isles

In light of a recently updated University of Hawaii report that suggests legalizing same-sex marriages may boost Hawaii’s tourism industry by an estimated $217 million over a three-year period, Maui tourism officials and industry professionals say that legalizing same-sex marriages would bring benefits to more than 150 businesses on the Valley Isle as well.

“Marriage equality is likely to lead to substantial increases in Hawaii visitor arrivals, visitor spending and state and county general excise tax revenues,” UH economics professor and author Sumner La Croix said in the report, co-authored with Lauren Gabriel of the William S. Richardson School of Law.

As one of the world’s most popular wedding destinations, Maui has much to gain if the state were to legalize same-sex marriage, tourism officials said.

There are more than 150 businesses listed in the Maui Wedding Club, an online registry of wedding-related services ranging from restaurants and caterers to photographers and tour guides. These businesses would likely see significant boosts in sales if the state were to legalize same-sex marriage, according to Maui County Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen.

“It would clearly impact our wedding industry, and we certainly do have a lot of companies on our island in the wedding industry,” Rasmussen said. “Prior to the recession, we had a huge booming destination wedding business. It took quite a downturn during the recession, but it’s slowly starting to come back. This (same-sex marriages) may help that.”

Last year, 5,827 marriage licenses were issued in Maui County to nonresident couples who visited the islands to get married, according to state Department of Health statistics.

“Marriage equality can be a huge opportunity,” said Bob Kincaid, president of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Maui Pride. “Everybody wants to do their weddings on Maui. It’s beautiful. It has that aloha spirit. People are very accepting and friendly.”

Kincaid serves as product manager for the Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort in Kihei.

Since Proposition 8 (California’s gay marriage ban) was overturned on June 26, he said that he has received “a lot” of calls from same-sex couples wanting to celebrate their honeymoon on Maui. He expected the trend will continue to grow if those couples could get married here, too.

“Maui is the world’s leading destination for weddings for straight couples. It would make sense that it would be the same for gay couples,” said wedding planner Kevin Rebelo, who has been arranging both weddings and civil union ceremonies on Maui for nearly 20 years.

Rebelo told The Maui News in 2010 that though he and longtime partner Frank Miholer have married thousands of couples, they themselves are not able to have their relationship recognized by the State of Hawaii.

The UH study, an endeavor of the university’s Economic Research Organization, comes as an update about a month after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California’s marriage ban. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. If Hawaii doesn’t follow suit, and fast, it could miss out on millions of tourism dollars, La Croix said.

“The additional gains in visitor spending are time-sensitive: Spending by U.S. same-sex couples and their guests on honeymoons and marriages will be diverted to other states until Hawaii recognizes marriage equality,” the report said.

Over a three-year period beginning in January 2014, the state is slated to miss out on $166 million in visitor spending from marriages and honeymoons of same-sex couples, according to the report.

Last year, the average U.S. visitor coming to Hawaii to marry spent $259 per day and stayed 10.36 days, according to data provided by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. That means each visiting couple coming to marry spent an average of $5,366.

Researchers estimated that if same-sex marriage were to become available in Hawaii on Jan. 1, nearly 2,000 couples would marry in Hawaii from 2014 to 2016.

While many of the marriages would be same-sex couples traveling to Hawaii from other states, residents would be able to benefit from the unions as well. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 3,262 same-sex couples reported to be living together in Hawaii.

Advocates say legalizing same-sex marriage is critical because it grants same-sex couples federal rights and responsibilities, including Social Security benefits and veteran benefits, and makes them eligible for federal housing and food stamp programs. It also holds same-sex couples to federal regulations regarding spousal taxation, bankruptcy, inheritance and loans.

“This is a turning point for equal rights, and for Hawaii to be behind that would be a step in the right direction,” Kincaid said. “Hawaii bases its business off tourism, and if they don’t want to lose out on wedding business, they’re going to have to do something.”

* Eileen Chao can be reached at