GO WHERE OBAMA WENT ...
Obama childhood locales attracting more tourists
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By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
A growing number of O'ahu tours are taking visitors to the sites where President-elect Barack Obama was born, went to school, scooped ice cream and ate plate lunches.
Tour companies say there's a growing demand from visitors eager to learn more about the Hawai'i-born Obama, who spent all but four of his first 18 years in the Islands.
While the economic slowdown has cut into Hawai'i's tourism numbers, a niche visitor market is growing up around Obama. The tours are emerging from larger companies that have modified existing bus tours to smaller companies that set up special Obama tours.
Polynesian Adventure Tours and Polynesian Hospitality have added Obama tours.
Guides of O'ahu, which specializes in smaller nature-oriented tours, launched a 2 1/2-hour "Obama Tour" this week, charging $40 per person.
"Our visitors are aware now that Obama was born here; they do have some interest in his early years," said Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau CEO John Monahan.
Mitch Berger, the founder of Guides of O'ahu, said his tour includes tidbits like where Obama's Punahou basketball team went to eat (the Mr. Burger that was on University Avenue near the University of Hawai'i), where they ate malasadas (Leonard's on Kapahulu) and plate lunches (Zippy's and Rainbow Drive-in).
His tours swing by Noelani Elementary School, where Obama went to kindergarten. And past his birthplace, Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women and Children. And to the University of Hawai'i, where his parents met.
"It's not a political tour," Berger said. "It's a fun tour."
At Polynesian Hospitality, sales manager Glenn Ifuku said his company has been offering custom-designed Obama tours for independent travelers and a few larger bus tours.
Ifuku said these tours take visitors past most of the landmarks: birthplace, schools, several homes as well as some visitor destinations such as Halona Blowhole and Sandy Beach that figure in Obama's early years.
Obama scattered his mother's ashes in the blowhole area and tossed a lei into the water in her memory on a recent vacation here. And he frequently bodysurfed at Sandy's as a teen and returned there on a recent vacation.
Ifuku said some tours already have been going by the grandmother's apartment building. "It's essentially all drive-bys — we're trying to not disrupt the residential areas," he said. "We're trying to be very careful."
Most of the tours point out the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store on King street where Obama worked in high school.
Berger said he's constantly learning more about Obama, relying a lot on "The Dream Begins — How Hawai'i Shaped Barack Obama," by local authors Stu Glauberman and Jerry Burris.
He's also interviewing people who knew Obama and plans to put together a DVD with old photos and interviews. "Verifying that the information we're finding is correct is always a challenge," he said.
Those designing the tours say they're taking time to research them. "We're not just making this up," Berger said. "We want to make sure that everything's factual."
About four months ago, Polynesian Adventure tour company started regularly adding Obama information to an existing O'ahu tour, said Lee Collins, vice president of sales and marketing.
Some of the enthusiasm has come from a veteran tour guide who is a Punahou graduate himself. "Everybody's proud about him being from Hawai'i," said guide Ernie Rabago.
Rabago, 60, said his Obama-related tours have been evolving in response to the growing interest.
"I'm just doing a lot of the research and trying to put it all together," he said.
And he wants to include more of the Hawaiian values that emerge in the style of the next president.
"Just look at the way he carries himself," Rabago said. "His leadership style is more including everybody."
The interest stretches across political lines. "There's definitely interest," Rabago said. "People are really enthused and excited.
"I've had people say 'Can you slow down so I can take a picture? My husband's going to be so happy that I got a picture of his school.' "
And because the president-elect vacationed on O'ahu in August with his family, he added a number of current visitor destinations that are easy to point out.
Collins said the company is doing the research through newspapers, interviewing people who knew him and the area.
"We want it to be a celebration of his life in Hawai'i," he said. "It doesn't take a political stance."
Punahou school has felt the upswing in attention from the curious with groups of people showing up on campus on occasion — especially just before and just after the election, according to Carlyn Tani, director of external relations for Punahou.
The school politely steers people to its Web site (www.punahou.edu) instead of the campus. "We're not set up to handle public tours at this time," Tani said.
"We really appreciate the interest that people have in tracing his roots and in looking at the school he went to.
"As a school — like any other school — we're concerned with protecting the educational environment of the students and protecting their privacy."
The Web site includes an "Obama media kit" that anyone can access that includes detailed biographical information, photos, information about his interests in school and an essay he wrote in 1999 for the Punahou Bulletin.
Reach Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com.