Image: Tour guide Jack Christenson leads a tour
Marco Garcia  /  AP
Tour guide Jack Christenson leads a tour through the neighborhood where President-elect Barack Obama grew up, in Honolulu.
updated 12/8/2008 2:44:09 PM ET 2008-12-08T19:44:09

It happened to Plains, when Jimmy Carter became president and a tiny hamlet in western Georgia became famous as the hometown of a certain peanut farmer.

It happened to Crawford, Texas, when George Bush took the White House and the town closest to his getaway central Texas ranch blossomed with tourists and the businesses that catered to them.

But Honolulu, which already lures millions of tourists each year, is only beginning to see development of tourism tied to Barack Obama, the Hawaii native son who becomes the 44th president of the United States in January.

The sole existing Obama-related tour is a 90-minute stroll through the middle-class neighborhood where Obama spent most of his preteen and teenage years. It's led by Jack Christenson, a quirky septuagenarian who goes by the moniker Uncle Jack.

Christenson, who has long offered tours around town and asks only for donations, said he started his Obama neighborhood excursion a few weeks ago so tourists can go to "the place where it happened. That brings reality to it."

His tour includes a walk past the apartment tower where Obama and his late grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, lived. There also are stops outside Punahou School, where Obama attended from 1971 until high school graduation in 1979, a smaller apartment building where Obama's mother and sister lived briefly, and the Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor where he worked.

Besides Uncle Jack, at least two other entrepreneurs are preparing their own for-profit tours. And other established businesses have for months been selling T-shirts festooned with Obama's name or visage.

Obama's legacy here should help promote Hawaii as a tourist destination, said Juanita C. Liu, the interim dean of the School of Travel Industry at the University of Hawaii.

"Hawaii has traditionally been associated with sun, sand, recreation and leisure, and now we have the person in the highest office in the country," she said. "So it gives Hawaii greater credibility as well as visibility."

Liu noted that Hawaii's tourism industry is "currently in a downturn. ... But what I can say is (Obama's presidency) certainly is not going to hurt."

But nothing has occurred in Honolulu akin to the tourists that flocked to and the businesses that sprung up in Crawford, Plains or the Arkansas towns of Hope and Hot Springs, where former President Bill Clinton was born and raised.

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Concierge desks at major hotels in Honolulu report few guests asking for directions to the neighborhood where Obama lived. The visitors bureaus for Oahu and Hawaii report only infrequent requests for such information.

Besides the sites where Obama lived or was schooled, there isn't much to see for those curious about his Hawaii history.

There's Sandy Beach, where he surfed as a teenager and swam as a presidential candidate during his vacation last August; the Chowder House restaurant, where a modest window sign advertises that the former senator was a customer, and other similarly ordinary spots.

That is not deterring Mitch Berger, president of Guides of Oahu. He said customers on his company's nature tours have increasingly asked where Obama lived. So he plans to start 2 1/2-hour minibus tours of just Obama-related sites soon.

"I'm continually getting questions on things that shaped the man who is to become our 44th president," he said.

Another effort, to be called Obama Ohana Tour, expects to start up before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, said Dianne Washington-Kay, who along with a friend, Mike Irvine, is developing the business. Ohana is a Hawaiian term that means family.

"If people come here and see why this island produced this kind of individual, that will broaden their view as to why Hawaii is a melting pot," said Washington-Kay, who noted that her family lives a few blocks from Obama's Chicago home.

Further, a local writer, Rob Kay, recently launched a Web site devoted to all things Obama and Hawaii. And just before Thanksgiving, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau unveiled a site highlighting Obama-related locations at http://www.gohawaii.com/obama.

But even a large surge of tourists searching for Obama's childhood hangouts is unlikely to change much about Honolulu, like it did Plains, Hope and Crawford.

In those towns, existing businesses and new shops selling presidential trinkets catered to tourists, gas stations filled up their cars and hotels provided rooms for the night.

"It had a big impact in the beginning," said Marilyn Judy, a school teacher and president of the Crawford Chamber of Commerce. "The tourists came and spent their dollars....Even when the protesters came, they still bought souvenirs and ate in the restaurants."

Slideshow: The heart of Hawaii But Honolulu is a much bigger city, with more than 800,000 residents. Tourists who come here expect a broader experience than just viewing buildings where the president-to-be spent his childhood 30 to 40 years ago. And once Obama-mania fades, Honolulu's enduring tourist attractions will remain.

Not so in Crawford, where Bush-related tourism fell off in recent years. Two gift shops in Crawford have closed and the pace has returned to about where it was before the Bush years, Judy said.

In nearby Waco, tourism business has declined as well, but more the result of gas prices and the recession, said Steve Smith, senior vice president at the Waco Chamber of Commerce.

And so it may be with Obama-related tourism in Honolulu, said Jean Monroe, a Guides of Oahu researcher.

"Whether 20 years from now people are interested in Obama depends entirely on Obama," she said. "As long as people are interested in him, they will want to visit."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Presidential journey

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  1. Michelle Obama and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, walk offstage as President-elect Barack Obama addresses supporters during his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago. Obama was a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. He returned to the Windy City after earning his law degree, taught at the University of Chicago and eventually entered politics. Now, the Obamas live in the Kenwood area of Chicago, an affluent, educated neighborhood on the South Side. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Obama and his daughters walk the beach during their vacation in Kailua, Hawaii, on Aug. 12, 2008. Obama was born in Honolulu and lived with his mother and grandparents in a two-bedroom apartment. He moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1967 after his mother married an Indonesian man. Obama returned to Hawaii when he was 10 and lived with his grandparents until he was 18. (Marco Garcia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. During his August vacation, Obama threw a lei at the point where he scattered his mother's ashes in Honolulu. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Obama (red shirt) is seen with family and friends at the Pali Lookout in Honolulu. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The steep trail to the Makapuu lighthouse is one of Barack Obama's favorite hikes in his hometown of Honolulu. Here, a hiker and her dog make their way along the picturesque trail. (Lucy Pemoni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In 1971, when he was 10 years old, Barry Obama enrolled at the private Punahou School in Honolulu and entered an unfamiliar world of privilege. Despite feeling out of place, he eventually prospered at the school. Today, tuition tops $16,000 per year at the exclusive institution. (Lucy Pemoni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Indonesian school girls run on the playground at the SDN Menteng 1 school in Jakarta, Indonesia. President-elect Barack Obama attended the school when he was a child. (Ed Wray / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Local boys in Kogelo village, Kenya, admire a painting featuring President-elect Barack Obama, center, alongside, from left, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, current U.S. President George W. Bush and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, during a gathering of people on Nov. 4, 2008. Obama's late father was from Kogelo, a village in western Kenya, and his half-brother, step-grandmother and other relatives still live there. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. This is a view of Langdell Hall at the school's campus in Cambridge, Mass. While there, Obama served as president for the Harvard Law Review. (Harvard Law School / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barber Tony Coye talks about President-elect Barack Obama as he cuts Kenneth Clay's hair at the Hyde Park Hair Salon in Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. This is a curbside view of the Chicago home of President-elect Barack Obama. Places that U.S. presidents have called home often become major tourist attractions, from estates at Mount Vernon and Monticello, to Hodgenville, Ky., where Abe Lincoln's log cabin once stood. (Jerry Lai / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Occidental College students celebrate in Samuelson Campus Pavilion on the Eagle Rock campus in Los Angeles, Calif., as alumnus Barack Obama is officially announced the 44th president of the United States on Nov. 4, 2008. (Marc Campos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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