Hula smiles on Hilo
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
HILO — Every year during Easter week, the Merrie Monarch Festival, which ended last night, transforms Hilo, attracting thousands of visitors from around the world for free hula performances, craft fairs, entertainment, a folksy parade and the centerpiece three-night hula competition.
What does Merrie Monarch mean to Hiloans?
"Merrie Monarch is Hilo," said Isaiah Reed, who was shopping for snacks at the KTA store on Puainako Street.
Reed, of Mountain View, said the festival reflects Hilo by being slow to change, family-oriented and home-grown and it makes him proud each year.
"When you go (to the hula performances), it's like one big family. You see people you know everywhere you go," he said. "That's Hilo."
Derek Kurisu, executive vice president of KTA Super Store, said the thing he loves about the Merrie Monarch season is that "you see smiles — everyone's smiling, the visitors, the local people, the employees."
"To me, Hilo is the most Hawaiian place in Hawai'i. It is so appropriate that this event should be here," said Kapua Fujimoto, who lives just up the hill from Hilo and used to take hula. "This event is different from other hula festivals. The kumu and the dancers have to study so hard because of the documentation rules. So just to be near them for this short period of time makes me feel more Hawaiian."
But this event also has a very practical purpose: The Merrie Monarch Festival was created 47 years ago as a way to promote Hilo in difficult financial times. And it's worked, though the dip in the economy has had its effect.
Beth-An Nishijima, of the popular Nori's Saimin & Snacks, said she sees a 40 percent increase in business during Merrie Monarch, mostly from catering to hālau (hula schools) and people buying food gifts to take home.
But, she said, last year was "pitiful." She normally sells 800 chocolate mochi cakes during this period; last year, it was down to 300. This year, she expected to sell at least 500. In addition to that, she feeds three hālau, one of which serves 150 to 200 people a day.
"This has been a much better Merrie Monarch. The influx is good," she said. Still, she said, some hālau are staying in family homes rather than hotels and being fed by friends and family to keep costs down.
Kurisu said KTA gets a big bump in business during the festival, with people stocking up because they're entertaining family, buying bento to take to the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium for the hula competition and acquiring omiyage to take home. KTA specializes in locally made foods, many of which you can't get anywhere else.
Fashion designer Sig Zane has compared Merrie Monarch to a second Christmas for retailers.
Hilo's small complement of hotels and bed and breakfast inns are sold out during Merrie Monarch. At the Hilo Hawaiian, you have to fill out a reservation form for the following year as you check out or you can forget about getting a room. Some Hiloans or others in nearby communities rent out their homes and take a vacation during Merrie Monarch.
Also benefiting are crafters — there are at least half a dozen craft fairs during the event.
But Merrie Monarch director Luana Kawelu said she has no idea just how many visitors are drawn to Hilo for the event, or how much money it represents to the community. The festival has tried to get figures on this from local government entities, but without success.
"Nobody knows. It would be a good research project," she said.