Maui a popular stop for LGBT travelers

According to study, most come for the scenery, not to meet other LGBT people

Emily and Deanna Anderson hold a wedding ceremony at the White Orchid Beach House in Makena in September 2010. Same-sex marriage was not legalized by Hawaii until 2013, and after an initial flurry the same-sex wedding business has become more steady, according Carolee Higashino, owner of White Orchid Wedding and the LGBT-focused Purple Orchid Wedding. -- TAD CRAIG photo

Emily and Deanna Anderson hold a wedding ceremony at the White Orchid Beach House in Makena in September 2010. Same-sex marriage was not legalized by Hawaii until 2013, and after an initial flurry the same-sex wedding business has become more steady, according Carolee Higashino, owner of White Orchid Wedding and the LGBT-focused Purple Orchid Wedding. -- TAD CRAIG photo

Maui is the second-most visited island for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers from the United States, but it is top amongst Canadians and third amongst Australians, according to a study released by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority in March.

Over the past five years, Oahu was the most visited island at 49 percent of U.S. participants, followed by Maui at 42 percent, Hawaii island at 37 percent and Kauai at 26 percent. Not as many had been to Lanai (3 percent) or Molokai (2 percent).

While Maui may not have a lot of LGBT-geared hotels, bars or other venues, visitors don’t need those attractions to draw them to the Valley Isle, people in the tourism industry said last week.

“They’re all coming for the same kind of reasons — the beauty, the serenity, the adventure, the beach,” said Michael Waddell, general manager of the Kohea Kai Resort in Kihei, formerly the Maui Sunseeker LGBT resort.

With LGBT Canadians, Maui was the most visited over the past five years at 57 percent of participants. It was less popular with LGBT Australians at 25 percent.

Norman Mangina and Matthew Regole were married on Jan. 10 on south Maluaka Beach. Maui is the second-most visited island for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers, a recent Hawai‘i Tourism Authority study showed. -- MARIAH MILAN photo

Norman Mangina and Matthew Regole were married on Jan. 10 on south Maluaka Beach. Maui is the second-most visited island for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers, a recent Hawai‘i Tourism Authority study showed. -- MARIAH MILAN photo

The study of LGBT visitors and nonvisitors was the first of its kind in the state. Put together by San Francisco-based firm Community Marketing & Insights, it surveyed travelers in categories that included friendliness of the islands, reasons for travel and preferred activities.

For its U.S. study, which contained the most Maui-specific data, researchers gathered information from 1,121 U.S. residents 25 and older who had “a reasonable potential of visiting Hawaii” based on past visitor data.

Waddell’s words rang true in the U.S. study: most people were drawn to Hawaii’s scenery, its sense of relaxation and its wide range of exciting and unique activities. Far fewer saw the islands as “a great LGBT destination” or a place to meet other LGBT people.

For travelers, Hawaii provides the perfect balance of natural attraction and welcoming spirit.

“I think people come here for the escape,” said Paul Tonnessen, president of LGBT group Maui Pride. “I think they just come here to enjoy paradise and knowing that we are an accepting community.”

About 70 percent of U.S. visitors ranked Hawaii as LGBT friendly (4 or 5 on a 5-point scale). While it’s lower than top-ranked places like Los Angeles at 89 percent and South Florida at 86 percent, Hawaii is much higher than a lot of international warm weather destinations.

Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, for example, had a 41 percent friendliness rating, while the Bahamas got only 13 percent.

“I just think, being in such a diverse state, we understand discrimination, even if people aren’t from the LGBT community,” Tonnessen said.

The Hawai’i Tourism Authority said LGBT travel to Hawaii can be up to 6 percent of total visitors from both Japan and Canada, up to 7 percent of visitors from the West Coast and up to 9 percent of visitors from the East Coast.

Maui tended to be favored more by East Coast visitors, 45 percent of whom said they’d visited Maui on their last trip to Hawaii, as compared to West Coast visitors at 37 percent. Baby boomers were also more likely to visit than Generation X — 44 to 35 percent. (Millennials were not included in this section due to small sample size.) However, Maui was almost equally visited by gay/bisexual men at 42 percent and lesbian/bisexual women at 40 percent.

Daniel Naho’opi’i, director of tourism research for the tourism authority, said the data will help tourism-focused businesses to more effectively market to LGBT travelers.

However, Waddell said, LGBT visitors don’t need to be “different and singled out.”

“As a gay man married 43 years to the same man, our attraction to Maui as a gay couple was that it was a beautiful place,” Waddell said. “It was a very accepting community. We could be ourselves. To me, that’s no different than any other person.”

Tourism has changed since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015, Waddell said. LGBT-specific businesses don’t corner the market on LGBT travelers the way they did before, as travelers feel safe trying out new places.

“You have to open your business to a larger audience because every other hotel on this island and in the world is going after that gay dollar,” he said.

That’s why the Sunseeker no longer was a “sustainable business model.” Former owner Chuck Spence sold the hotel to MR and T Hotel Management in September, and it became the adults-only Kohea Kai.

Carolee Higashino, owner of White Orchid Wedding and the LGBT-focused Purple Orchid Wedding, also has seen a change in her business since the legalization of same-sex marriage.

When same-sex couples could be married only in certain states, destination weddings were popular, according to the tourism study. (In 2013, Hawaii became the 15th state to legalize it.) But since gay marriage became legal, “the first wave of same-sex couples getting married is now complete,” and the LGBT wedding and honeymoon business in Hawaii is less of a “new business wave” than before. Higashino agreed.

“There was a flurry, and now it’s pretty steady,” she said. “At the time, it was such a big deal. Now it’s so much more commonplace.”

Not much has changed for Higashino, however. She markets to same-sex couples as much as she did before and after it became legal. As for whether there’s more competition, Higashino said Maui’s wedding industry has always been “pretty saturated.”

“I always have to make sure I’m cross-cultural in my marketing practices and feature as many same-sex couples as I do heterosexual,” she said.

The Hawai’i Tourism Authority plans to release studies on LGBT Japanese and Taiwanese travelers within the next couple of months.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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