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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, November 21, 2004

Las Vegas a sure bet for many Island residents

By Ken Ritter
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — In Hawai'i, ABC stores are ubiquitous, catering to tourists from what seems like every corner in paradise.

Manu Schmidt, left, and Ann Mikami, of the Hawaiian Legends Serenaders, perform during the Maui County Reunion at the California hotel-casino in Las Vegas. The desert city is a big draw for Hawai'i residents, luring thousands annually for visits or permanent stays.

Associated Press library photos

But the only ABC stores on the Mainland are found in Nevada's city of sin and glitter. It's no coincidence.

Company chief Paul Kosasa said he put three of his stores with the distinctive blue-and-white alphabet logos in Las Vegas, in part, because so many people from Hawai'i are attracted to the desert city, referred to by many as the "ninth island."

More people from Hawai'i moved to Nevada from 1995 to 2000 than the combined populations of Lana'i and Moloka'i, and the equivalent of half of Hawai'i's population travels every year to and from Las Vegas.

Coming to Las Vegas "can be like a reunion," Kosasa said. "You see people you haven't seen in a long time."

Indeed, when 200 transplants from Maui, Lana'i and Moloka'i gather every two years from their adopted homes in California, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota, they rendezvous at the California hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

Donald Watanabe, of California, shares a laugh with Irene Yonamine, of Las Vegas, at the California hotel-casino, the site of many Isle events.

Associated Press library photos

"Hawai'i people are natural gamblers," said Ted Kamada, a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher and reunion organizer who graduated from a Maui high school in 1950. "Las Vegas is a natural thing for them."

"This is where everyone felt comfortable," said Chuck Hazama, former longtime mayor of Rochester, Minn., as he found high-school friends in the cocktail-hour crowd filling a ballroom at the California hotel.

Not leaving Las Vegas

Others come to Las Vegas and never leave — yielding to what Matt Wray, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas called "chain migration" and "commonalities between the economies."

The first, he said, "is where people tell relatives and friends, 'Come on over. I can help you find a job.' Or, 'Come stay with me while you find a job.' "

The second, Wray said, "goes beyond tourism and hospitality in that the major category of job opportunities (in Las Vegas) is the service industry, and Hawai'i's economy is a service economy."

Steven Lum, a Las Vegas real-estate businessman, figures there were a few hundred transplants from Hawai'i among the 600,000 people living in southern Nevada when he arrived in 1986.

Since then, about 25,000 people have swapped Hawai'i driver's licenses for Nevada licenses, according to Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles records.

From 1995 to 2000, some 12,079 people moved from Hawai'i to Nevada, according to the U.S. Census, outstripping the combined number of 10,597 residents on Lana'i and Moloka'i.

Lifestyle trade-off

Lum calls it a trade-off for those choosing to leave the laid-back life in the lush islands for booming but sun-baked southern Nevada, now home to 1.6 million of Nevada's 2.3 million residents.

"In Vegas, you have a higher standard of living," Lum said. "In Hawai'i, the quality of life is better. It depends on what the person wants."

Melissa Nahooikaika's family chose opportunity. When the 18-year-old and her parents were looking to move before she entered high school, they put Kona and the Big Island behind them and put down roots in southern Nevada. Her dad found work building houses in one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.

"The price of living was really high there," Nahooikaika recalled as she stepped from a Jeep Cherokee with "Hawaiian By Blood" stenciled on the rear window.

Generations have faced the same problem, said Hazama, 72, a member of Maui's Baldwin High class of 1950 who winters in Hawai'i and spends summers in Minnesota.

"The cost of living in Hawai'i is so prohibitive," he said, "and there's a lack of opportunities for young people to find jobs."

For those making the move, Lum lures Hawai'i transplants with his business name, No Ka Oi Realty.

"In Hawai'i, people struggle," he said. "On the island, most younger families may own a condo or a townhome. Here, they hear of their friends with big houses."

Everyone in Hawai'i knows someone who moved to Las Vegas, said tourist Melodi Kekauoha, 36, who said that while visiting the city she and her husband, Joel, planned to see friends who made the leap across the Pacific.

"The demand for Las Vegas travel in Hawai'i is huge," said Keoni Wagner, marketing vice president for Hawaiian Airlines.

Almost 229,000 commercial airline passengers made the one-way trip from Honolulu with Las Vegas as their final stop last year — up almost six times from travel levels in 2000, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And travel from the Islands is up nearly 27 percent from January to August this year.

To meet demand, Hawaiian Airlines plans to add a red-eye flight in April for those who Wagner said "don't go to Las Vegas to sleep, but who hit the casinos, the shows and revel in the night life."

With the advantage of time zones, bleary-eyed gamblers can leave Las Vegas at 2:45 a.m. and arrive in Honolulu for breakfast. Aloha Airlines also launched a direct daily flight this year between McCarran International Airport and Honolulu.

McCarran, which tallies both commercial and charter passengers, reported 690,772 traveled to and from Hawai'i in 2003. Even though its population is small, Hawai'i is in the top 12 locations for visits to Las Vegas.

For many, a first trip from Honolulu to Las Vegas involved a cheap 1970s charter flight and a $9.90 room-and-meal package arranged by Boyd Gaming Corp., owner of several downtown hotels, including the California.

About 80 percent of Boyd's customers come from Hawai'i, said John Repetti, a company vice president. Company charters bring 10,000 travelers a month from Hawai'i.

"Customers who come in, I used to deal to their father or grandfather," Repetti said. "People come to our properties because they've been coming for generations."

That loyalty and history helped Boyd weather an outbreak of Norwalk virus that health officials said affected almost 1,700 people from December 2003 to June. Most were from Hawai'i and were staying at the 781-room California. The result was a flat second business quarter for Boyd, though company executives blamed the earnings dip on high jet fuel costs.

Island influence

Tourists have created a kind of island fever in the desert where firms like ABC and Hilo Hattie are putting down roots, and a Hawaiian Marketplace has sprung up on the Strip.

The Hawaiian influence is so pervasive in the desert that suburban shoppers at a Longs Drugs store miles from the Strip can find an aisle devoted to island merchandise.

Kosasa's ABC store on downtown's Fremont Street offers everything from "Desert Paradise" T-shirts to popcorn macadamia nut crunch snacks. He calls it a "resort convenience store."

"I think the California hotel and Main Street (Station hotel-casino) and the Boyd Group has adapted to the taste of what Hawai'i people like — what the local people like," he said.

The California offers Hawaiian specialties such as oxtail soup, saimin, butterfish and loco moco.

"And Hawaiians, they like to gamble," Kosasa added. " ... From the middle to older ages, they want to relax and have fun."