Yohei Ito, of Nagoya, Japan, lifted the veil of his bride, Mika Ito, at their wedding at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Saturday.

For first time, state
looks at wedding business

Hawaii attracted more than
50,000 visitors for weddings this year

For thousands of couples every month, Hawaii's romantic sunsets, lush tropical gardens and white-sand beaches provide an idyllic backdrop for a picture-perfect wedding.

Now, for the first time, the state is compiling data that give a glimpse of how vast and lucrative the nuptial business is in Hawaii.

Through March, 51,288 of Hawaii's 1.6 million visitors reported they came to the islands to get married, according to new state Department of Business and Economic Development and Tourism statistics.

Foreign visitors, mostly from Japan, accounted for 39,943 while U.S. mainland visitors totaled 11,345, according to the state.

Considering that most isle residents opt to get married in their home state, Hawaii's wedding market is even more impressive.

"The great news is the wedding and honeymoon market is big and it has been growing and expanding," said Tony Vericella, president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Yohei and Mika Ito, of Nagoya, Japan, walked under a shower of rose pedals Saturday at their wedding at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Each wedding routinely generates thousands -- even tens of thousands -- of dollars, benefiting hotels, houses of worship, retailers, wedding planners, photographers, musicians, limousine companies, caterers and florists.

"The wedding side really helps an awful lot of specific small businesses," Vericella said. "So it's really just a positive segment."

Tourism officials said couples who get married in Hawaii tend to be affluent, stay for their honeymoon and later return for vacations or anniversaries. They also bring family and friends to the islands. Japanese couples average about seven or eight wedding guests, while couples from the U.S. mainland bring more.

"If ever a couple is going to spend some dollars it's going to be on their wedding and their honeymoon because it's a once in a lifetime experience," said Marsha Weinert, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau. "We have targeted the higher-spending visitors -- those who want the quality of a vacation destination wedding and are willing to pay for it."

Aloha Wedding Planners in Honolulu provides services on four islands, with each area providing a different setting.

Owner Susan O'Donnell said Oahu's attraction is that it is more urban with many activities and a nightlife. The Big Island has appeal for many couples because it is more remote with rain forests and a volcano, although it has very little nightlife. Maui is something in between, for couples who have been to Oahu and want to try something different.

"I think we sell Kauai because it's still not the commercial spot," said Rod Lau, director of sales for the Kauai Marriott. "It's still very romantic. It's not overdone. It's definitely not a Waikiki."

Most of O'Donnell's business is from the mainland and Canada, for those hoping to avoid the hassles and stresses of planning a wedding at home.

"We've had a number of calls from clients who said they were planning something really big in their hometowns and then it just got out of hand and they decided to do a destination wedding instead," she said.

The beauty, remoteness and privacy of the islands have drawn numerous weddings for celebrities and the world's wealthy, from Lisa Marie Presley to Bill Gates.

How elaborate a couple wants their wedding and reception depends on their budget and imagination. Some couples exchanged vows underwater, on top of Haleakala volcano and even while hang gliding, Weinert said.

"We don't like to say no to anything," she said.

Fears of the SARS virus and the slumping economy in Asia have taken a toll on Japanese visitors coming to Hawaii for weddings and honeymoons, but business from the continental United States continues to be brisk.

Because nonresident marriage figures are being collected for the first time, there is no accurate comparison with previous years. The state Health Department tracks marriage licenses issued, but many foreign visitors obtain licenses in their native countries.

Tourism officials and businesses are expanding marketing efforts and expect to see steady growth in the wedding market. Many hotels are also enhancing wedding services and facilities.

Mark Barnes, marketing director for the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort, said residents make up about half of the wedding business at the West Oahu property. This year, weddings are at about the same pace as 2002 when the hotel had about 200 to 250 weddings. Ihilani also handles hundreds of receptions.

The Ihilani is building an 18,000-square-foot pavilion to accommodate receptions and other events, he said.

"Hawaii is a unique and special place that's not duplicated anywhere in the world," Vericella said.

Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau

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