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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 19, 2001

Tourism Talk
Waikiki improvements must pass the test with new visitors

By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer

There's nothing like contact with the outside world to shake up what you think.

Waikiki looks great, right?

That sculpture in front of Kalia Tower? Fabulous! The cascading water features outside KuhioBeach? How romantic! The streets? Scrubbed clean — like, a mother's version of clean — now that the Business Improvement District is in full force. The Bandstand, the Natatorium, the torch lighters, the list goes on and on. And last month, the Ilikai Hotel, one of Waikiki's tired old souls, finally unveiled its $25 million renovation.

So it was a pretty big reality check when a couple of visitors rolled in recently and said, "Hey, what's with Waikiki? It looks awful."

Are you kidding? You should have seen it before.

And therein lies the rub.

Waikiki definitely looks better, and people have started to notice. The Wall Street Journal's weekend section recently remarked on "how much classier Waikiki looks than it did a few years ago," and Conde Nast Traveler all but kissed the place full on the lips in its June issue. But those were people with reference points.

The trick to hitting "great" is convincing the newcomers. As Waikiki gets better and better, they must be the litmus test.

The "awful" visitors said Waikiki looked like it was "stuck in 1973," with worn out buildings, cheap fast food joints, fake Rolexes and other scourges that scream "black socks and sandals welcome here."

The destination's schizophrenia is clearest on the main drags: Kalakaua is all spit and polish, but Kuhio is still the land that time forgot. The good news is that more change — change that should spur even more change — is on its way shortly.

Starting next month, a music series is planned for the Bandstand, as well as a monthly "Brunch on the Beach" event. A new master plan is emerging for KuhioAvenue, and several private sector projects should come on line soon. There's talk of top line concerts on the beach and even restroom attendants in all the public facilities. Now that says "clean," "safe," "neat," and "darned happy to see ya'."

But as these plans go forward, the visitor industry must make sure that it's not just talking to itself. It must take care to give visitors what they actually want, and not just what it thinks they want.

This is not easy. Beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. Even within the industry, camps are divided. Some call the International Marketplace an "eyesore." Others say it's "energetic." Some people love the new Kalia Tower at Hilton Hawaiian Village. Others have redubbed the resort the "Hilton Manhattan Village."

Which gets to the question of vision, and the lack of a clearly articulated one for what is arguably Hawai'i's most important destination. Community and business leaders appear to agree that the experience of the place is just as important — and probably more important — than the buildings that house it. But defining the essence of that experience is difficult.

Some say Waikiki should be, simply, "Hawaiian." Some say it should be the "cultural and social gathering point for Honolulu." Others talk about a "Hawaiian sense of place." But which place are they trying to capture the sense of? The Hawai'i that saw duck ponds in Waikiki? The Victorian era? The '30s? The '40s?

Industry people say the bottom line on what they're looking for is that "they know it when they see it."

But that's not what counts.

The visitors have to know it when they see it.