LGBT couples and Islands destination weddings: A marriage made in heaven

| clients tying the knot on Maui.For Kevin Rebelo and his husband Frank Rebelo-Miholer, owners of Maui-based, the law that legalized same-sex marriage across the Aloha State late last year has been a long time coming.

"We were looking for someone to marry us here 20 years ago and couldn't find anybody," Rebelo said. "So we formed a service to do it, and we're happy that finally the service we offer is recognized by the government."

Describing Hawaii's difficult road to marriage equality as a "personal struggle," Rebelo said he and his husband have been "swamped" since Hawaii Gov. Neal Abercrombie signed the state's marriage equality legislation in November.

"We've probably booked between two and three weddings a day since the law passed," Rebelo said of his LGBT business.

Bookings, of course, are only part of the job, and there's been even more to do since the new same-sex marriage law took effect across the islands Dec. 14.

"We've basically been doing one wedding a day since it became legal," Rebelo said. "In the past, we might have done one a month."

Paying agents 10% commissions on all destination wedding packages, Rebelo said the U.S. federal government's recognition of gay and lesbian marriages has really helped make Hawaii's new state legislation very attractive to LGBT couples interested in tying the knot.

"We've noticed that the majority of our clients are coming from Texas or other states where it doesn't look like gay and lesbian marriages are going to be legalized any time soon," he explained. "People feel like they can come here and have their marriage and it will be recognized by the federal government."

According to Rebelo, that federal recognition might not be granted to same-sex marriages performed in destinations that regularly compete with Hawaii for business.

"If [couples] go to Mexico, for example, or the Bahamas, that may not be the case." he said. "So for those looking for a tropical destination wedding, if they come to Hawaii, it's part of the U.S., and the federal government is going to recognize that marriage. That's crucial."

Neal Miller, owner and president of the Atlanta-based Neal Miller Travel Co., also said that Hawaii's new law has led to a substantial increase in LGBT destination wedding inquiries and bookings from clients across the U.S.

"This has been the busiest December and start to January I've had," he said, noting that about 40% of his business comes from LGBT clientele. "And a lot of the activity and questions coming in is in regard to the LGBT weddings in Hawaii specifically."

Lounge area at Andaz Maui.A one-time Oahu resident, Miller said he expects his Aloha State LGBT destination business to jump 50% in 2014, due in part to larger wedding parties.

"I think now, because of this move with the legalization [of same-sex marriage], the families are more on board," he said. "There's been positive media coverage that, in my opinion, is swaying the opinions of some family members that may have been on the fence about whether they wanted to be a part of the event... It's swaying their opinions in a positive way."

Many of the LGBT weddings Miller books in Hawaii take place on Oahu, and while he works regularly with the Hyatt Regency Waikiki for accommodations and receptions, he likes to have clients actually hold their ceremony on the island's east coast.

"We often end up doing them out a Waimanalo Beach," he said. "It's such a beautiful setting out there for a ceremony, and you don't usually have to worry about crowds being in the background of your pictures."

On Maui, however, Miller prefers to book clients in the private villas at the Royal Lahaina Resort on the northern end of Ka'anapali Beach.

"Two of those villas actually have a gate that opens up right onto the beach" he said. "So you can have your reception in your private villa and have a gate that opens up to the beach where you do the ceremony."

Rebelo, on the other hand, prefers south Maui venues for his clients and said the majority of their beach marriages are conducted at Po'olenalena just south of the Wailea resorts.

"You've got the palm trees there, and you've got black lava rock, long stretches of sandy beach, which make for beautiful photography," he explained. "And it's much more intimate and private without all the hotel guests around."

When it comes to Maui accommodations for gay and lesbian visitors, Rebelo was quick to mention the Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort in Kihei, but he also spoke of one of the Valley Isle's newest additions: the Andaz Maui at Wailea.

"It's new and modern and has the sensibility that the LGBT community would like," he said. "Some of the resorts, like the Grand Wailea, are more family oriented and have the kids splashing in the pool. The Andaz just has a much more adult feel to it."

According to Chuck Spence, owner of the Sunseeker Resort, Hawaii's new same-sex marriage law has already boosted business substantially, but he said this could just be the start of much more to come.

"We have seen a staggering increase in same-sex wedding reservations," he said.

"In the entire year of 2012, the hotel arranged 53 civil unions, [but] we've already received reservations for 55 weddings over the next year. 85% of those weddings are from out of state and involve multiple room bookings, [and] if reservations stay on the same trajectory, Maui Sunseeker could arrange as many as 300 weddings in 2014."


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