HILO, Hawaii Island – Hilo’s hopping.
Hotels are full, restaurants have waiting lines and merchants throughout town are collecting some of the millions of dollars generated by the annual arrival of the world’s premier hula competition.
“There’s energy in the air when the Merrie Monarch comes to town,” Diane Ley, Hawaii County’s research and development director, said of the weeklong festival that starts each year on Easter Sunday.
Now in its 56th year, Merrie Monarch attracts an international audience to see halau (dance groups) from throughout Hawaii and also California.
“It’s getting bigger,” said Luana Kawelu, Merrie Monarch president and daughter of co-founder Dorothy “Dottie” Thompson.
Kawelu said she’s received requests from Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Lithuania for some of the 4,200 tickets that sell out each year Dec. 1, the day they become available.
“It costs a halau $45,000 to $50,000 to come here,” she said of the roughly two dozen Hawaii-based dance troupes that pay for interisland airfare, lodging, transportation, meals and other expenses.
That type of money is why some people – she did not name them – have long sought to relocate the festival to Oahu, Kawelu said.
“As long as I’m running it, the Merrie Monarch is never going to move from Hilo,” she said while sitting beneath a framed portrait of her late mother, who held the same conviction.
Visitors spend a total of about $6 million on the festival, according to a 2018 economic impact study by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. And that doesn’t include spending by Big Island residents, Nathan Kam, president of public relations for Anthology Marketing Group that does work for HTA, wrote in an email.
Businesses were already feeling that impact Wednesday, on the eve of the actual competition.
“We’re sold out,” said Alyssa Mahidashti, marketing assistant for the 379-room Grand Naniloa Resort, which is offering live music, hula performances and other festival-based events that had its lobby packed with guests.
Across town, thousands of people attend each of several craft fairs.
“This is amazing. I see it just from last year to this year how much it’s grown,” Jan Hori, co-owner of Hawaiian Pie Co., said as she helped supply her treats to a line of waiting customers.
The Honolulu company was back for its second appearance, this time landing a coveted spot in the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, which has expanded beyond a sports auditorium to its parking lot.
“We can see this is going to be a big one for our company,” Hori said, adding she anticipates sales will approximate Christmas-week revenues, typically its most lucrative time of year.
The fairs feature handmade clothing, jewelry, musical instruments and food items.
“When it comes to Merrie Monarch, everything is expensive,” Tanya Villanueva of Hilo said after buying a replacement koa bracelet for her daughter.
Prices didn’t seem to deter shoppers, however.
“We sell out,” Shea Uaiwa said of beef jerky offered by Orchid Isle Snacks.
Brisk shopping has even attracted the U.S. Postal Service, which is using innovation to help fairgoers get their purchases back home.
“This is the first mobile unit in the state of Hawaii here at the Merrie Monarch,” said Ramona Franco, marketing manager for the Postal Service’s Honolulu District. “This is our debut event.”
The vehicle, which will be kept on the Big Island for use at future events, offers flat-rate boxes for domestic and international shipping, Franco said.
“This is so convenient,” Koral McCarthy said while packing up craft fair purchases to be shipped to Kauai for use in her store.
“More vendors, more supplies, more people,” McCarthy said of this year’s fairs.
Other Hilo events “are not even” close to producing the economic impact of the Merrie Monarch Festival, which rivals the Ironman World Championship held each year in Kona, said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau.
“Because it is a weeklong event, it extends that economic impact,” he said, adding festival attendees likely spend more per person than those drawn to the triathlon.
Hawaii News Now is providing 16 to 18 hours of live coverage starting with Thursday night’s opening Miss Aloha Hula competition, said Rick Blangiardi, general manager.
“This is unprecedented,” Blangiardi said of the three straight nights of live broadcasts that will be combined with live Internet streaming on various platforms. “This will be our most aggressive coverage we’ve ever undertaken from the standpoint of distribution.”
Blangiardi is unsure how to calculate the value of the station’s coverage, except to say, “I think it’s priceless.”
Hawaii County has purchased advertisements promoting the Big Island as a visitor destination and was told by HNN that its web streaming of Merrie Monarch events will reach more than 200,000 visitors in more than 100 countries, with Japanese accounting for about half the international audience, Ley said.
“While the event has grown in popularity, it has held onto its small-town character,” she said. “That’s important to share statewide and with the world.”
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.