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Aloha gay couples! Hawaii eyes same-sex marriage tourism after vote

Jon Raffesberger (center, left) and his partner German Sanchez (center, right) celebrate after the Hawaii House of Representatives approved the same-sex marriage legislation on Nov. 8, 2013. Hugh Gentry / Reuters

A gay couple of 14 years stayed up late Friday night in Texas to watch the live stream of the Hawaii House of Representatives voting to approve same-sex marriage after a heated, days-long debate in the Aloha state legislature.

Though the same-sex marriage bill passed by the state Senate on Tuesday was set to be signed by the governor on Wednesday, the couple didn’t hesitate: they immediately contacted a Maui resort and reserved their dream wedding. The message: “Book it, we’re coming,” said Randy Broussard, a 64-year-old retired nurse living in the central Texas city of Temple with his partner, Ray Arsenault, 69. “Being married at sunset on the beach in the warm sun, it just was so appealing,” Broussard told NBC News on Sunday. “It’s a go.”

In Hawaii, where tourism is the No. 2 industry behind the military, businesses are hoping to snag some of the multi-million dollar gay wedding market just as other states have following passage of their same-sex marriage laws.

The 14 states that preceded Hawaii in allowing same-sex marriage have pulled in extra dollars in economic impact and tax revenues from gay and lesbian weddings, from in- and out-of-state residents, since Massachusetts first granted the right to wed in 2004, economists say. Some 100,000 gay couples have tied the knot in the last nine years, according to Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is affiliated with the Williams Institute, a think tank based at the UCLA School of Law.

Massachusetts gained an additional $111 million from 2004 to 2009, and Iowa earned up to $13 million from spring 2009 to December 2011, according to research conducted by the institute.

After New York legalized gay marriage in July 2011, New York City ran a gay marriage tourism campaign called “NYC I Do” which netted an estimated $259 million in economic impact and $16 million in city revenues during the first year. Vermont and New Hampshire added $5 million to their states’ coffers in the first year after gay marriage was approved, while Connecticut drew in another $16 million, according to the institute.

Hawaii could pull in an additional $69 million a year from 2014 to 2017, according to a working paper from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. Though that sum would represent a small chunk of Hawaii’s $72 billion a year GDP, it would help drive growth in an economy that gets nearly 20 percent of its income from tourism and which is still recovering from the 2008 recession, said lead author Sumner La Croix, a professor of economics at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

But La Croix’s analysis came with a caveat: act now and reap the revenue gains, or lose out on the “big pent-up demand for marriage” among gay couples, especially after the Supreme Court in June struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred recognition of same-marriage.

That’s what Minneapolis, Mayor R.T. Rybak was hoping to cash in on in September, when he went on a three-city tour encouraging gays and lesbians to wed in his city (“Marry Me in Minneapolis”) after marrying nearly 60 gay couples on Aug. 1, the first day same-sex marriages were allowed in Minnesota. (The Williams Institute projected the state would collect $42 million in gay wedding spending and tourism expenditures.)

He is hoping that the gay-friendly atmosphere will attract couples to move to the state, not just get married there.

“This has an economic impact that goes well beyond weddings,” he said. “People who can choose where to start a business or where to grow their business are less likely to do that in a place where they don’t have equal rights.”

With the Hawaii law taking effect Dec. 2 and peak tourism season beginning two weeks later, some businesses were already gearing up for the change.

Locally owned Honolulu-based hotel and resort chain, Aqua Hospitality, which has focused on the gay market for many years, said it would proceed with new marketing and offer destination wedding packages.

“Hawaii kind of stands on its own and speaks for itself” in terms of wedding tourism, said Elizabeth Churchill, an Aqua spokeswoman. “I don’t think we’ll be out there duking it out with Iowa and Illinois. We’re going to be more highly competitive as people are looking at a destination in the U.S. to get married.”

Chuck Spence, owner of the Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort where Broussard and Arsenault plan to wed in February, said he and some wedding coordinators were putting together special packages and making a promotional video. He is expecting stiff competition from other wedding tourism outfits though the resort received four inquiries on Tuesday -- up from typically two a month -- from same-sex couples after the Senate vote.

“We have to be ahead of the pack in terms of getting our name out there otherwise we’ll be trampled by the stampede,” he said, chuckling. “It happened with civil unions, it was amazing.”

Spence said his business experienced a boom after civil unions began in Hawaii in 2012, but then a quick decline when California started offering same-sex marriage in mid-2013. The U.S. government does not recognize civil unions as legal marriages so couples in those relationships would not receive federal benefits.

“Nobody wanted to have a civil union because they wanted full marriage rights, which basically they could get in California,” he said.

The Sheraton Waikiki Hotel said it was making sure its onsite marriage license certificate office was ready. In addition to creating new ads, staff will take a refresher course to “understand the importance of the market and how we can make sure that everyone feels welcome in Hawaii,” said Kelly Sanders, the hotel’s general manager.

Not everyone was onboard with the new tourism niche. During the five days of hearings in the Hawaii House, in which more than 1,000 people – mostly gay marriage opponents -- testified, Republican Rep. Richard Lee Fale asked: “Is this worth $270 million?”

“The answer is no,” he said, later adding, “This measure has caused more division than it’s worth.”

But none of the legislative rancor put off Broussard and Arsenault. They’re planning a traditional Hawaiian ceremony that includes the blessing of leis and rings.

“It’s a culmination of 14 years of being together,” said Broussard. “It means that we are equals with every other married couple in the United States.”

Are you part of a same-sex couple hoping to get married but live in a state where you cannot do so? Are you part of a same-sex couple not planning to get married? Share your story with reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com. Also please note if your comments can be used in a story and provide a telephone number.

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