WAILEA - Maui hotels and resorts are gearing up to host same-sex couples in Hawaii to formalize their relationships starting New Year's Day.
Industry insiders have said they expect that the law legalizing civil unions, which takes effect Jan. 1, will lead to a boost in tourism among same-sex visitors. Hotel executives said they're actively reaching out to the gay and lesbian community with promotions and packages aimed at couples who are eager to make their commitment official.
"We've had 10 ceremonies booked so far," said Chuck Spence, owner of the Maui Sunseeker LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) Resort in Kihei. "Already we've also seen an immediate boost in bookings, and not just because of civil unions, but because the law also opens up the perception by the gay and lesbian community that Hawaii is truly a welcoming state. We are aloha."
Chuck Spence, owner of Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort, stands in front of his boutique hotel along South Kihei Road last week. The business caters to gay and lesbian visitors.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTON photo
He said bookings were up by 50 percent over last year.
Maui Hotel & Lodging Association Executive Director Carol Reimann said a majority of island hotels were making preparations for Jan. 1 that include contracting with wedding planners experienced at working with same-sex couples.
"Our hotels try to accommodate all segments of the population, and this is a huge audience," she said.
Those resorts include the Grand Wailea, which is hoping to lure same-sex guests by offering a free iPad to the first 10 couples who sign up for one of its civil unions packages. The packages, which range from "modest to opulent," according to a press release, include civil union or commitment ceremonies in the hotel chapel or on the beach, vow renewals, and ceremonies that incorporate Hawaiian culture, like lei exchanges, conch blowing or a luau.
Managing Director Matt Bailey said courting same-sex couples made sense for the hotel on a variety of levels.
"Maui has a nurturing and welcoming environment, with a small-town feel and open-mindedness to it," he said. "I wish I could say it was all altruistic, but we're not trying to make a political statement."
He said market research has shown that same-sex couples are an attractive market, because they tend to be higher income, are less likely to have children and often travel with friends.
"It's also the right thing to do," Bailey said.
Hawaii's hard-fought civil unions law was bitterly opposed by conservative and Christian groups, who said the measure posed a threat to heterosexual marriage and traditional families.
Deacon Walter Yoshimitzu of the Honolulu Roman Catholic Diocese said marriage should be only between a man and a woman.
"Even with civil unions, we believe it is same-sex marriage by another name," he said.
"I don't have any reaction to civil unions at the hotels because what they are doing is a business proposition," said Yoshimitzu, an organizer of a large multidenominational rally against civil unions on Maui last year. "They see it as a lucrative market, and they are trying to cash in on it."
Spence acknowledged that many will perceive civil unions as an attempt to cash in on gay and lesbian visitors.
"But realistically, this is a minority that has been discriminated against for decades," he said. "The fact that we can be accepted speaks volumes about Hawaii's true nature."
Sure it can be fun and it costs money, but a civil union is really about true love, Spence said.
A recent study by the University of California, Los Angeles found that Iowa's decision to legalize gay marriage in 2009 translated into as much as $12 million more in tourism dollars.
State Sen. Roz Baker, who represents West and South Maui and was a supporter of the civil unions bill, said she hoped the law would attract couples to Hawaii.
"Let's face it, too, nowhere is the weather nicer in January, or are there as many beautiful places to visit year round, than in Hawaii," she said, adding that "the wedding business has always been good to Maui."
But she and West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey noted that the new civil unions license will be recognized only in Hawaii, so they anticipated it to attract a wave but not a tsunami of same-sex visitors.
"It's not going to be a billion-dollar law," McKelvey said.
More significant than its ability to attract visitors, he said, the law was important for gays and lesbians living in Hawaii, because it would give them the same rights as heterosexual couples.
"We still have a long way to go," said spokesman Don Bentz for Equality Hawaii of Honolulu, a gay rights advocacy group. "If a couple, let's say, comes from Florida (which doesn't have gay marriage or civil unions), they have rights here but lose them after the plane ride."
Bentz said his organization had already been fielding numerous inquiries about the new civil unions law. But he said he doesn't expect a rush on Jan. 1. Most couples are picking special or practical days, such as anniversaries or when family and friends can be there, for their special day.
Frank Miholer and Kevin Rebelo, who own gayhawaiiwedding.com on Maui, have been performing ceremonies for heterosexual and gay couples, recognized or not, for many years. They've said they expect their numbers to go from nearly 40 ceremonies a year to more than 100.
Spence works with Miholer and Rebelo and said he's going to provide group room discounts and gifts like champagne. He said the hotel's first legal ceremony will be for an Oklahoma couple on Jan. 2.
He noted that they're bringing friends - as others certainly will - and that the tourists will spend money at other Maui businesses.
"In regard to tourism, absolutely this will have a great impact. No question," said Spence, whose hotel currently has 25 rooms and now plans to add more.
Applications and information about civil unions are available online at hawaii.gov/health.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.