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International Market Place Closes

Cheap and kitschy is giving way to more high-end retail for Waikiki

Photo: Thinkstock

The old International Market Place is dead.

For more than 50 years, tourists flocked there, drawn to the warren of cheap jewelry stores, kiosks selling kitschy bric-a-brac and the romance of the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant, which opened there in 1956. Owned by The Queen Emma Land Co., the market place was a memorial to – if not Old Hawaii – the tiki image most visitors have of Old Hawaii, replete with ersatz thatched roofs and a Swiss Family Robinson tree house in the grand old banyan that dominates the mall, a tree reputedly planted by Queen Emma herself.

Those days are done.

The last of the 130 or so tenants, many of whom were there from the beginning, moved out Dec. 31 so developer Taubman Centers could begin construction on a new and very different International Market Place. To begin with, the new development will be decidedly more upscale, said Cedric Yamanaka, spokesman for Queen Emma Co. and director of corporate communications for The Queen’s Health Systems, which is the principal beneficiary of the venerable alii trust.

Michael Thipphavong ran his own jewelry stand at the International Market Place for 17 years.

Photo: Kristin Lipman

“The revitalized International Market Place will offer approximately 60 retailers and seven restaurants, many of which will be new to the Waikiki market, and the island’s first full-line Saks Fifth Avenue. It will also offer a true Hawaiian sense of place that honors Queen Emma’s legacy, while providing an exciting mix of shops, outdoor dining and entertainment venues.”

For Queen’s, this transformation to an upscale shopping center is vital. It is the state’s largest private, nonprofit hospital and depends upon revenues from the Market Place and the trust’s other Waikiki properties to offset costs. And high-end retail will generate more revenue than the mom-and-pop shops in the old market place ever could. This extra income is especially important as the hospital’s budget is squeezed by healthcare reform.

Yamanaka also pointed out that the project’s benefits extend beyond Queen’s. The redevelopment, he said, “is also anticipated to create approximately 1,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs, boost tourism, and generate additional sales and property taxes for the city and state.”

All that may be good for Queen’s and the local economy, but it comes at a cost.

First of all, it’s unlikely that many of the 130 vendors at the old market place will be able to afford the higher rents in the new development. (The Queen Emma Land Co. says it still hasn’t decided what the rents will be.) In a series of interviews before the market closed, several tenants said they could barely afford the old rates. “I don’t know how they make money; it baffles me,” said Chris Lee, who worked as a psychic at the Enchanted Banyan Tree for more than four years.

Michael Thipphavong’s booth.

Photo: Kristin Lipman

Michael Thipphavong worked in the market for more than 22 years, 17 of them selling jewelry from his own kiosk. “We pay a little bit over $5,000 (a month) for this booth, and we’re all the way in the back of the market,” he said. “The people in the front are paying over $10,000 a month.”

Not only that, he said, but revenues had been declining even while Waikiki hotels reported full occupancy. “Business has not been that good. There’s been an increase in tourists, but they’re not spending their money. I think it’s because of the way the economy has been: not too stable.” That’s a sentiment echoed by other low-end retailers in Waikiki, and it suggests International Market Place vendors will have a hard time relocating.

Martin Schimm and Anna Hoegel, from the San Francisco area.

Photo: Kristin Lipman

Yamanaka said Queen’s is providing counselors to help the old tenants with career guidance, financial planning and relocation. Most of the tenants we spoke with, though, weren’t sure where they would end up. “We’re trying to open somewhere else,” said Thipphavong, “so we’re looking for a new place. But everywhere we look, they want a lot more rent because they know all these people are looking for spaces.”

Other vendors face the same concerns. “We’re not certain what we’re going to do after Dec. 31 when the mall shuts down,” Lee said. “Everyone in here is going to be scattered to the winds.” For shops like the Enchanted Banyan that rely upon return customers, this may be the biggest tragedy. “I’ve been talking to a lot of tourists and the majority don’t even know that we’re closing,” Lee said. “I have lots of return customers who come back every year, but they won’t be able to find me when we move. I’m going to miss them.”

Chris Lee, a psychic at the Enchanted Banyan Tree.

Photo: Kristin Lipman

Many of the tourists that we spoke with also lamented the closing of the Market Place. Martin Schimm and Anna Hoegel, frequent visitors from the San Francisco area, noted that it is one of the least expensive places for tourists to shop. They also worry about the workers. “Some of the people in the International Market Place have been here 30 or 40 years,” Schimm said. “It’s sad that it’s going to be all taken down.”

Many Waikiki residents and workers also complained about the loss of the Market Place and the changing nature of Waikiki.

“It’s just sad it’s selling out and going all corporate,” said Sara Taylor, who has worked in retail in Waikiki for the past four years. “Soon, we will not have places like the International Market Place. That’s the one real spot that has character and is down-to-earth.”

Many people acknowledged that change is inevitable, but the trick for The Queen Emma Land Co. will be to maintain a sense of place, even as it modernizes. That’s a challenge it has acknowledged and accepted. Chris Lee doubted the company will succeed. But, he said, “At least Queen Emma is going to keep the tree.”

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Old to new | New to old
Jan 14, 2014 03:50 pm
 Posted by  BobLovesHawaii

Their timing can't be any worse. High end is saturated. Just look down the main drag, all high end. How many rich people are there, and can't they buy this stuff at home?

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Jan 15, 2014 05:11 pm
 Posted by  chassie

Completely agree with Chris sad and there are plenty of high end stores already and a lot of those spaces are empty..and they are creating more by getting rid of the International Market and it's history!! Dumb!
We came from Michigan in Feb..knew it would be closing figuring by the end of the we came back for Christmas (2ce in 1 year!) we will move on after coming 12 yrs...only a few of my favorites left..Hilo Hatties Trolley, Ohau Stadium Market and North Shore :/ !!UpSET!

Apr 15, 2014 01:42 pm
 Posted by  missing Hawaii

It's a shame that he International Market Place will no longer be an Hawaiian icon for all to see. My wife and I fist went to it in 1968 and have always told people that were going to Hawaii to go to the Market Place. We have been going to Hawaii for the last 15 years and always went to the International Market for shopping, the food, and the entertainment. We loved to just walk around it. We'll miss it. Lets keep Hawaii down to earth so that all can visit the island, not just the rich.

Apr 22, 2014 07:28 am
 Posted by  chloe

How sad it is when It becomes all about the Money and not about the people! My sister and I have been coming for 17 years, and loved visiting the Market Place. We made friends with many of the vendors. We will be lost our next visit. Thank goodness we got phone numbers ,so next year we can call to find out where they are.

Apr 23, 2014 06:48 pm
 Posted by  Lee4luck

I have been coming here every year since 1979. I am very sad to see the International Market Place gone. I brought my kids & my grand kids. It was a high lit to visiting Waikiki . In the evening after the beach an dinner off we would go to find little treasures and to meet wonderful fun vendors. It's not the same at the swap meet. I would hope the city would find some place for people to gather an buy their treasures. Instead of another corporate mall. Thankyou vendors you will be missed.

Jun 23, 2014 04:50 am
 Posted by  mopsy54

I will be back in 2016 with my friends and we will not spend one red cent in this new waste of space. The three of us have wonderful memories of walking around and shopping in the old IMP which is gone to accommodate up scale snobs. We will not shop or eat there as it is now just a dead zone full of wonderful memories. The name of The International Marketplace should be re-titled The Dead Zone.

Jul 26, 2014 05:24 pm
 Posted by  Dot

Been stopping in Waikiki on my way to Canada, since the 1960's.
It's a shame that the marketplace is gone. Will miss it very much.
Cant afford to shop in the high end stores. Also would not have anywhere to wear the clothes sold there. Darn shame that they don't cater for the little people anymore !!!

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