Is Hawaii Doing Enough To Attract LGBT Tourism?

Aug 19, 2015

Credit Flickr/Guillaume Paumier

Dozens of tourism officials are meeting today in Waikīkī to discuss LGBT travel in Hawai‘i. Hotels, tour groups, and local businesses are hoping to better promote the islands as a destination for the gay market. And as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, many question whether the state tourism agency is doing enough.

Jack Law is no stranger to the LGBT traveler. His popular gay bar, Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand, has been a mainstay at the edge of Waikīkī since 1974. He says back then, Hawai‘i was one of the top destinations for gay travelers.

“There wasn’t the competition,” said Law, who believes it’s a different world now. He frequently sees advertisements for places like Fort Lauderdale, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas in LGBT magazines. But rarely does he spot one that highlights the Aloha State. “Hawai‘i has done hardly any kind of reach out to this community,” said Law. “We’re simply not in the game.”

“20 years ago, Hawai‘i was one of the hottest LGBT destinations out there,” said David Paisley, a senior research director at Community Marketing and Insights, a San Francisco-based market research firm that specializes in the LGBT community. “What happened through the years is that more and more destinations starting outreaching to the LGBT community,” said Paisley. “Hawai‘i lost a little bit of ground.”

A report from Paisley’s company shows about 7 to 8 percent of all LGBT travelers visit Hawai‘i every year. It recently ranked among the top 20 U.S. destinations among gay men and lesbians. Paisley says most metropolitan cities, including New York and San Francisco, aggressively market LGBT travelers. But Paisley says he rarely sees that for Honolulu or Hawai‘i. “We do see those outreaches from hotel groups, particularly Aston, Aqua, and Starwood properties in Hawai‘i. But you really don’t see anything from a government-level tourism bureau,” said Paisley. “And that’s somewhat unusual.”

When asked why similar campaigns weren’t being used by Hawai‘i, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority released the following statement: “As an island community of diverse cultures, customs and backgrounds, Hawai‘i is a place of mutual respect and aloha for all. We welcome all visitors that want to experience and embrace the aloha spirit that makes our Hawaiian Islands so special.”

HTA went on to acknowledge that LGBT travelers were an important market to watch and had recently purchased advertisements in a digital gay wedding magazine. But critics say those efforts fall short.

“There’s really no clue, they’re not part of the big picture and they don’t reach out,” said Juergen Steinmetz, the publisher of the electronic newsletter eTurboNews. He follows tourism trends and says the HTA has long lagged when it comes to outreach in the LGBT community. “HTA really has not even looked at the problem. We’re still being told it’s a niche market,” said Steinmetz. “It’s really not a niche market, it’s a potential business market.

And it’s a business market that’s growing, according to David Paisley from Community Marketing and Insights. “When the LGBT community sees these images and these advertisements from other warm weather destinations, and they’re not seeing it from Hawai‘i,” said Paisley. “It makes them feel more welcome to go other places.”

And with the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, critics say it’s a perfect time to rethink a marketing strategy.