Hawaiians Capitalize on Obama Fame

HONOLULU – Hawaiians are peddling their native son the best way they know how – with bus tours, a Barack Obama-inspired ice cream flavor and a “Barry Slept Here” map.

But even the nation’s first black president has trouble competing with Pearl Harbor and Waikiki Beach.

In fact, if the seven weeks after the election are any testament, there will be no Crawford-ization of Oahu, the island where Obama grew up and returns for vacation. Entire livelihoods were built on President George W. Bush vacationing at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, with stores selling trinkets and press hang-outs flourishing.

On Oahu, Obama is a niche market.

Air conditioned mini-buses full of tourists wind around the narrow streets of Makiki, his old Honolulu neighborhood. They breeze past the school Obama attended and the apartment building where his grandparents raised him. Some guides let tourists hop off to snap photographs in the lobby of the hospital where Obama was born.

But business is slow. Tour operator Mitch Berger has been running a $40 Obama tour for about a month — but he’s only had enough interest to run three eight-person tours a week, despite thousands of tourists who flock here every day.

The local Baskin-Robbins shop where Obama worked as a teen tried to drum up business by creating Swirl of Change (chocolate, caramel and nuts in vanilla ice cream.). The flavor isn’t a big seller.

“They ask if he worked here – always,” said Cheryl Fernandez, a store manager – but the store hasn’t seen an uptick in business from the Obama tie.

Even the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau was slow off the mark in trying to capitalize on Obama’s roots, and only recently created a website listing his choice places to eat, snorkel and golf.

Some of the lack of interest could be because marketing Obama is a bit new to Hawaii. But the tours also could struggle to gain interest because Hawaii is a vacation spot, not a political hotbed. While the state voted more than 70 percent for Obama, it’s rich in tourists, and with that comes a political mix and the risk of alienating some of them.

On one seven-and-a-half hour excursion called “Hawaii Obama Tour” – $54.99 per person – six hours went by until the guide mentioned Obama’s name. First there were tours of the Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri battleship at Pearl Harbor.

Guide Jeff Gunther rounded out the end of his tour by pointing out Obama’s school and the hospital where he was born. He told a story of how he briefly met Obama when he visited the Arizona Memorial. At a stop light, he noted that the Baskin-Robbins was around the corner.

“As you probably have guessed,” Gunther said, “people here are very proud, very supportive of him.”

The bus was silent. No one seemed to have signed up for the part of the advertisement that touted seeing “the homes, schools and hangouts of the 44th president of the United States.”

Gunther’s mention of Obama attractions put off Christa Looney and her husband and two daughters. They were visiting from Alaska. To them, Obama’s win means Gov. Sarah Palin’s loss.

“That’s not something that we’re here for,” Looney said. “I’m on vacation so in some ways, mixing this stuff in, the political stuff it’s like ‘OK, move on.’ ”

This tacking on of Obama sights as an addendum has caused a stir among some island tour guides.

Berger, president of Guides of Oahu, fought back by creating his 2 ½ hour Obama-only tour intended to show visitors how Hawaii shaped the president-elect’s life.

“It’s more than ‘here’s Baskin Robbins, there’s the hospital,’” said Berger, who specializes in nature tours. “It’s a voyage.”

The tour touches on places where Obama played basketball, where he went to the movies, the lookout he frequented with his friends, the state park where he picnicked with his grandparents.

For visitors who are interested, the Obama pitch is getting stronger. A local man who used to be a guide at Diamond Head gives walking tours of Obama sights. A writer in Honolulu created a Web site, obamasneighborhood.com, that serves a virtual guide to Obama’s Hawaii years, including a Google map marking all the Hawaii places Obama has lived.

Still, it appears so far Chicago has been able to lay more claim to Obama than Honolulu.

Where flags bearing Obama’s image fly from lampposts in downtown Chicago, those hanging from lampposts in downtown Honolulu feature Santa Claus flashing the hang-loose sign.

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