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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 19, 2001

Hula festival crowd jams laid-back Hilo

 •  13 women vie for Miss Aloha Hula
 •  Merrie Monarch – watch it from home

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

HILO, Hawai'i — Big-city folks heat up this cool and rainy town for a few scant days each year.

 •  Vote for your favorite Miss Aloha Hula competitor
Hilo-born Richard Kamanu, now a minister on Kaua'i, remembers when the Merrie Monarch Festival was a laid-back affair and not the large-scale invasion it is now.

Despite characteristic Neighbor Island hospitality, there is some stress, for sure.

"We Neighbor Island folks, we can always spot a Honolulu person a mile away," Kamanu said with a laugh. "They're always asking, 'Don't you have a 24-hour saimin place here?' or something. They're snobbish, to some extent."

Big Islanders who dislike crowds may cringe a little during this annual hula competition and crafts bonanza, and there may be a little hiding out, a little complaining about people who are careless or messy.

That may be because Hilo, population 45,000, is not set up for the sudden rush of 5,000 people attending the three-night competition, plus the thousands more who choke the streets selling or buying wares at craft booths. There are far fewer hotel rooms than people who want to fill them, far fewer seats at the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium than hula admirers who want to sit and admire.

In an economically strapped community like Hilo, it's hard to justify building more hotels or adding more seats for only three nights a year. But Hilo's preferred route out of this Catch-22 is not that the Merrie Monarch go away — not by a long shot.

Kamehameha Schools' Lono Padilla, left, and Kanani Aukai wait at Hilo Airport for a ride to their hula festival hotel.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

What they would like, said hotel manager Lei Andrade, is more festivals to boost the economy so that improvements might be affordable.

"We had our first annual Rain Festival last October," said Andrade, general manager at the Hawai'i Naniloa Hotel. "It was kind of cute, with water shows, canoe races. There was an umbrella parade, too."

Until such events take off, however, hotels can't count on maintaining high visitor counts. The Naniloa, in the midst of renegotiating its lease on its state-owned property, has left about half of one 64-room wing open to festival bookings, but some day the entire wing could become time-share rentals, Andrade said.

Some Hilo residents harbor hope, too, that the University of Hawai'i Hilo campus will someday get its sports complex, which would handsomely accommodate an event like the Merrie Monarch.

But these may be pipe dreams, with public money being tight all over: The county has not found the $750,000 or so it needs to upgrade the stadium where the competition takes place, said county parks planner Glenn Miyao. That improvement — the replacement of wooden bleachers with concrete seating on two sides, and the construction of new dressing rooms — wouldn't add much capacity but would make things a little more comfortable, Miyao said.

Meanwhile, festival director Dorothy "Aunty Dottie" Thompson has found that certain improvements just can't wait. Three years ago, when overtaxed electrical systems led to a blackout in mid-competition, Thompson decided to get a backup generator for subsequent events.

Thompson said there were frequent rumblings among visitors to Hilo that the event should move to Honolulu, especially during a five-year period in the 1980s when the competition became televised and popularity skyrocketed. But that chatter has died off.