Gambling, growth help make Vegas the ‘ninth island’ of Hawaii
LAS VEGAS – In Hawaii, ABC stores are ubiquitous, catering to tourists from what seems like every corner in paradise.
But away from the islands in the mainland United States, the only ABC stores to be found are located in Nevada’s city of sin and glitter. It’s no coincidence.
Company chief Paul Kosasa said he put three of his stores with the distinctive blue and white alphabet logos in Las Vegas, in part, because so many people from Hawaii are attracted to the desert city referred to by many as the “ninth island.”
More people from Hawaii moved to Nevada from 1995 to 2000 than the combined populations of the islands of Lanai and Molokai, and the equivalent of half the Hawaiian population travels every year to and from Las Vegas.
Coming to Las Vegas “can be like a reunion,” Kosasa said. “You see people you haven’t seen in a long time.”
Indeed, when 200 transplants from Maui, Lanai and Molokai gather every two years from their adopted homes in California, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota, they rendezvous at an aging downtown Las Vegas hotel.
“Hawaii people are natural gamblers,” said Ted Kamada, a retired former Los Angeles schoolteacher and reunion organizer who graduated from high school in Maui in 1950. “Las Vegas is a natural thing for them.”
“This is where everyone felt comfortable,” said Chuck Hazama, longtime former mayor of Rochester, Minn., as he found high school friends in the cocktail-hour crowd filling a ballroom at the California hotel-casino. “In Hawaii, it’s called ‘ohana’ – family.”
Others come to Las Vegas and never leave – yielding to what Matt Wray, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, called “chain migration” and “commonalities between the economies.”
The first, he said, “is where people tell relatives and friends, ‘Come on over. I can help you find a job.’ Or, ‘Come stay with me while you find a job.”‘
The second, Wray said, “goes beyond tourism and hospitality in that the major category of job opportunities (in Las Vegas) is the service industry, and Hawaii’s economy is a service economy.”
Steven Lum, a Las Vegas real estate businessman, figures there were a few hundred transplants from Hawaii among the 600,000 people living in southern Nevada when he arrived in 1986.
Since then, about 25,000 people have swapped Hawaiian driver’s licenses for Nevada licenses, according to Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles records.
From 1995 to 2000, some 12,079 people moved from Hawaii to Nevada, according to the U.S. Census, outstripping the combined number of 10,597 residents on Lanai and Molokai.
Lum calls it a trade-off for those choosing to leave the laid-back life in the lush islands for booming but sun-baked southern Nevada, now home to 1.6 million of Nevada’s 2.3 million residents.
“In Vegas, you have a higher standard of living,” Lum said. “In Hawaii, the quality of life is better. It depends on what the person wants.”
Melissa Nahooikaika’s family chose opportunity. When the 18-year-old and her parents were looking to move before she entered high school, they put Kona and the Big Island behind them and put down roots in southern Nevada. Her dad found work building houses in one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.
“The price of living was really high there,” Nahooikaika recalled as she stepped from a Jeep Cherokee with “Hawaiian By Blood” stenciled on the rear window.
For those making the move, Lum lures Hawaii transplants with his business name, No ka Oi Realty, which translates as “No. 1.”
“In Hawaii, people struggle,” he said. “On the island, most younger families may own a condo or a townhome. Here, they hear of their friends with big houses.”
Everyone in Hawaii knows someone who moved to Las Vegas, said tourist Melodi Kekauoha, 36, who said that while visiting the city she and her husband, Joel, planned to see friends who made the leap across the Pacific.
“The demand for Las Vegas travel in Hawaii is huge,” said Keoni Wagner, marketing vice president for Hawaiian Airlines in Honolulu.
Nearly 229,000 commercial airline passengers made the one-way trip from Honolulu with Las Vegas as their final stop last year – up almost six times from travel levels in 2000, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And travel from the islands is up nearly 27 percent from January to August this year.
To meet demand, Hawaiian Airlines plans to add a redeye flight in April for those who Wagner said “don’t go to Las Vegas to sleep, but who hit the casinos, the shows and revel in the night life.” With the advantage of two time zones, bleary-eyed gamblers can leave Las Vegas at 2:45 a.m. and arrive in Honolulu for breakfast. Aloha Airlines also launched a direct daily flight between McCarran International Airport and Honolulu.
McCarran, which tallies both commercial and charter passengers, reported 690,772 traveled to and from Hawaii in 2003. For such a small state – Hawaii has a population of only 1.2 million – it is in the top 12 for visitation to Las Vegas.
For many, a first trip from Honolulu to Las Vegas was on a cheap 1970s charter flight and a $9.90 room-and-meal package arranged by Boyd Gaming Corp., owner of several downtown hotels,.
Tourists have created a kind of island fever in the desert where firms like ABC and Hilo Hattie are putting down roots, and a Hawaiian Marketplace has sprung up on the Strip.
The Hawaiian influence is so pervasive in the desert that suburban shoppers at a Longs Drugs store miles from the Strip can find an aisle devoted to island merchandise.
Kosasa’s ABC store on Fremont Street downtown offers everything from “Desert Paradise” T-shirts to popcorn macadamia nut crunch snacks. He calls it a “resort convenience store.”
“And Hawaiians, they like to gamble,” Kosasa added. “Hawaii does not have any legalized gambling. From the middle to older ages, they want to relax and have fun.”
The Kekauohas said others on their vacation package flight began talking about the “ninth island” as their aircraft began descending toward the Strip.