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Could Hawaii Become A Same-Sex Wedding Destination?

Sunset on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Sunset on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Starting Monday, same-sex marriage is legal in Hawaii. The state has long been a destination for weddings and honeymoons. And now state officials, as well as hotels and restaurants, are hoping the latest marriage-equality law will spur a new market for wedding tourism.

Wedding planner Keane Akao is showing off a secluded beach wedding site, one of several on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

"You can use the beach for pictures," he tells a couple, "and this is actually called Secret Beach."

His company, Perfectly Planned Hawaii, offers wedding planning for same-sex couples. Swaying palm trees and clear blue water make for a dream ceremony.

Akao started his company with his business partner less than six months ago, just before Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie called for a special session to debate same-sex marriage.

"People now can look at Hawaii as a destination to have their marriage done legally," says Akao, "and for it to be recognized by the federal government, no matter what state they may live in."

He has received more than two-dozen confirmations since the bill passed last month.

One couple planning to marry in the islands is Cira Abiseid and Cyrilla Owle. Last month, they celebrated their union in a ceremony with family and friends at home in Conway, Ark. But their home state doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, so Owle says they're going to Hawaii to make it official.

"I think there's two things that came in effect when planning where we wanted to be married," says Owle. "First, like any couple, we wanted to see where we wanted to go for our honeymoon. So who doesn't want to go to Hawaii for their honeymoon, right? And the second reason was, where could we get a license?"

"Same-sex couples will be attracted to Hawaii for the same reasons that opposite-sex couples are attracted to Hawaii," says Sumner La Croix, an economist at the University of Hawaii. "It's the great weather, it's the warm water, it's the beautiful scenery. And it's also the aloha spirit."

La Croix estimates that over the next three years, gay marriage will boost tourism in Hawaii by $217 million. Unlike some other states with marriage equality laws, Hawaii already has a booming tourism industry. La Croix believes that gives Hawaii an advantage.

"The machinery of marriage is already in place here. There are hotels that are in the marriage business," he says. "They're used to catering to couples who are honeymooning or want to get married or are celebrating a marriage. There are wedding photographers. There are caterers. There's a large number of firms that are specialized in the marriage business."

In Hawaii, tourism is a $14 billion industry. Now, the island chain is positioning itself for a spike in visitors — among them, Honolulu-based hotel chain Aqua Hospitality. It already offers LGBT travel deals, including the "out and proud" package and the "civil unions romance special."

Bigger beachfront resorts are also getting in on the action. The Sheraton Waikiki is the only hotel on Oahu providing on-site marriage licenses. General Manager Kelly Sanders says now the hotel is running a new ad campaign in mainland LGBT publications.

"Yes, there's a revenue opportunity," says Sanders. "There's an opportunity for all of us to really have that great success, but in my mind it's something that should have happened already. And so it's just now being able to really open all of our arms as wide as they can be and say welcome."

It was Hawaii that back in 1991 touched off the national conversation about same-sex marriage. Then, three couples sued to force the state to issue them marriage licenses. Now, more than two decades later, Hawaii is the latest state to recognize marriage equality.

Copyright 2013 Hawaii Public Radio

Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.