Locked Down in Waikiki
By Tom Koppel, photos by Annie Palovcik

When the world’s most powerful leaders meet up in Hawaii, paradise takes on an ominous look.

Hawaii travel

It was not exactly the Hawaiian holiday we had anticipated. The normally bustling boulevards were barricaded, lined with police cars and olive-drab Humvees and empty of traffic. Thousands of police and soldiers patrolled the sidewalks and beaches. Helicopters clattered low overhead. Sinister mobile military watchtowers with searchlights overlooked the yacht harbor. Coast Guard cutters with guns on the bow cruised back and forth just offshore, enforcing a maritime exclusion zone. Canoe clubs had to cancel weekend races. Even the surfers were barred from their favorite spots.


Welcome to Waikiki, where, for a week in November, aloha met the new normal.

The massive uniformed presence was aimed at ensuring the safety of leaders and economic delegations from 21 Asia-Pacific countries, including their host, President Obama.

My wife and I found ourselves smack in the middle of a security zone that extended for many blocks, cordoned off within a fenced perimeter monitored by checkpoints and sniffer dogs. Our condo hotel, the seaside Ilikai, housed temporary offices, where delegates and media people had their photos taken and credentials issued. Our balcony faced the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where Obama and his entourage were staying. On our other side, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his large entourage were housed next door at The Modern.

We were free to walk around and use some of the beaches, but warned to carry photo ID and proof that, registered at the Ilikai, we belonged in the area. We could cross the wide boulevard, but not if a convoy of VIP limousines was about to pass by. At such times, soldiers and police formed human shields at the crosswalks.

One evening, returning from dinner, we were halfway across to our hotel when soldiers on the pedestrian island suddenly stopped us. Something was happening. Standing patiently, we gawked as a motorcade with flashing lights was assembled in the nearest side-street. After five or ten minutes, it suddenly zoomed out into the boulevard and took off. There were police escorts, SUVs (presumably full of bodyguards), and an ambulance just in case. In the middle was a long, black limousine flying the Russian flag and carrying Medvedev to a banquet.


The motorcades were frequent. A fellow Ilikai guest, Howard Nelson from Chicago, told us he had waited 30 minutes to cross the street to buy snacks at a convenience store, and another 45 minutes to get back. Coming to the hotel annually since 1968, he had never before experienced such security. One time, Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos had arrived with numerous limos and mountains of luggage. He had strutted through the lobby with a phalanx of bodyguards and taken over the entire eleventh floor. This was mainly to have space for his infamous wife Imelda's thousands of pairs of shoes, Nelson quipped. But other residents had not been inconvenienced.

The Asia-Pacific summit wreaked havoc with all of Honolulu's daily routine. Oahu's airspace was repeatedly closed, as top leaders arrived and departed, delaying flights even to and from Hawaii's outer islands. Whenever Obama, Medvedev or Chinese President Hu Jintao had to travel beyond Waikiki, the Secret Service ordered the main freeway closed to traffic in both directions. Frustrated drivers were stuck behind hastily established roadblocks at on-ramps, backing up traffic elsewhere. The shut-downs were unpredictable and lengthy, sometimes 40 minutes or longer. One Ilikai visitor came in from the airport to as near our hotel as possible. His taxi got caught with the meter running, costing him $75 rather than the normal $35 fare.

Hawaii yacht harbor

Like all vehicles, taxis could only enter the inner zone through checkpoints, where trunks were opened and searched. This took much too long for the cabbies. People leaving for the airport were forced to wheel their luggage out past the perimeter to areas accessed by cabs, buses and airport shuttles. The elderly and infirm were not amused.

Tourism officials had forecast a $123 million benefit for Hawaii. Instead, it was an economic bust. Far fewer media types and corporate executives than expected showed up. And with all the traffic and parking problems, visitors and locals from other parts of Oahu avoided Waikiki if they could. The streets were empty and the eateries dead. One restaurant near us laid off half of its employees for the week and housed the rest at hotels within walking distance. There was no reliable way to get to work otherwise.

Fortunately, there was also an upside. The sun still shone and palms swayed in the warm trade-winds. The powers that be were mainly friendly. "Hang loose" is the local motto, and Honolulu's police are more laid back than cops elsewhere. The soldiers in tropical fatigues must have thought there were worse duties than people-watching on the beach. Even the tall guys in dark suits with funny things in one ear seemed relaxed. Then there was our favorite swimming beach, just outside the fences. Its entire parking area had been commandeered for police use. The regular crowd could not drive there with their paddle boards or picnic coolers; it was pedestrians only. So we had the beach almost to ourselves. Around the condo pool, as well, nobody who did not need to catch a flight was particularly put out. One woman phoned home to Portland and heard it was cold and rainy. She was not complaining.

Hawaii police boat

By the end of the international meetings, though, Honolulu residents were grumbling that the security measures were excessive. Obama was born and largely raised there, and remains quite popular. But he lingered an extra couple of days for less-than-urgent personal and political reasons. This meant one final traffic mess, as his motorcade took him to the military airfield. And one last airspace closure for the adjacent civilian airport.

Local TV showed the empty freeway, with lines of cars waiting as Obama sped by, and then Air Force One, as it taxied and took off. From our balcony, we watched the big plane bank and climb southward, carrying the president to Australia.

As the barricades came down and life returned to normal, people breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian author, journalist and travel writer who has contributed travel features to numerous newspapers and magazines for over 25 years, including the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Globe & Mail, National Post, Islands Magazine, and Sydney Morning Herald. He has also published four popular non-fiction books on history and science, mainly with a maritime connection. His forthcoming fifth book, Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific, will be published in August by the University of the South Pacific Press.

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