International Market Place’s new life

Waikiki’s International Market Place has been the epicenter of Hawaii’s tourism industry since it was first opened in 1956. When it closed for demolition and redevelopment in 2013, many residents decried the loss of the last vestige of “old Waikiki.” The changes, however, were for the better.

For a variety of reasons, the redevelopment of the International Market Place was a matter of pure inevitability. By 2013, most of Waikiki’s locally owned and operated merchants and restaurants along Kalakaua Avenue (Hawaii’s Times Square) were replaced with high-end, international corporate retail and dining tenants: Louis Vuitton, Armani, Cheesecake Factory, Jimmy Buffet’s, and the like.

The old, original International Marketplace was quickly becoming obsolete. Its open air layout was comfortable, but it lacked the sophistication a new tourist industry demanded. International visitors, particularly those from Asian markets, were coming to Hawaii to shop for glitzy retail products and brands that were and are unavailable or prohibitively expensive at home.

Famous iconic Waikiki hotels like the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel had undergone renovations and modernizations while maintaining their original aesthetic and appeal. The changes to International Market Place were to completely remake the 6-acre space. The dive bars and food court were to be replaced by corporate entities. The giant, expansive banyan tree that was at the center of the marketplace was to be cut down.

International Marketplace Ground Floor

“They’re going to kill the soul of Waikiki!” was the chorus of lament. But the truth is that the infrastructure of the marketplace was dilapidated beyond repair. The kiosks selling tropical gim-crackery were struggling. The banyan tree was home to hundreds of pigeons, Hawaiian doves, and mynah birds (and the poop they generate) and suffering dry-rot. It was becoming unsanitary. Compared to a complete redevelopment, basic repairs and maintenance costs were unsustainable.

The property is owned by the Queen Emma Land Company, one of Hawaii’s oldest institutional landholders. It is leased and managed by Taubman and CoastWood Capital. Revenues from sales at International Market Place are used to support the Queen’s Medical Center, the largest medical trauma center in the Pacific region. Falling revenues directly affected operations at QMC. Changes at the marketplace were necessary not just for profits, but for the operation of Hawaii and the Pacific region’s most important hospital.

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With the 2016 reopening, the International Market Place was transformed utterly. It is now completely enclosed, although its atriums still provide at least a modicum of out-doorsiness. With three floors of retail and dining, it’s a shopaholic’s dream. Saks Fifth Avenue is the anchor tenant. Burberry and Swarovski are other prestigious brands that now call International Market Place home. Validated parking is reasonably priced (fairly unheard of in crowded Waikiki). Local brands are also present. World-famous Hawaii chef Roy Yamaguchi opened his Eating House 1839. Crazy Shirts retains its Waikiki presence.

Slingshot Hawaii's show model at the International Marketplace.

Full disclosure; The International Market Place is also home to Hawaii Jeep Tours and Slingshot Hawaii owned by Hawaii Aloha Travel, the producers of this blog!

Having grown up in Honolulu and having spent a lot of time as a teenager wandering the maze of kiosks that once characterized the place, I’ll say that I find the changes at International Market Place to be for the better, even for the best. Many of my contemporaries and other residents may disagree. But the kitsch of “old Waikiki” became woefully outdated long before the changes were made.